Missing Michael Ignatieff? A Tory tweet might reveal more than intended

Is it possible that some Conservative strategists might secretly wish for the return of Michael Ignatieff, if only because he was a much easier target for attack ads than his successor? Kady O'Malley wonders.

Is it a good idea to remind voters how very unlike Ignatieff Justin Trudeau has turned out to be?

In response to former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's tweeted announcement that he's taking a fulltime position at Harvard, the Conservative Party's Twitter account posted an unreleased ad from the 2011 election campaign. (Conservative Party of Canada (screenshot))

Earlier this week, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced that, after a few years splitting time between the University of Toronto and Harvard's Kennedy School, he has accepted a fulltime appointment at Harvard as the Edward R. Murrow Chair of Press, Politics and Public Policy.

In response, the Conservative Party's official Twitter account — which had heretofore seemed to be a purely utilitarian, personality-free information dispersal mechanism — tweeted the following:

Was it a sly "We Told You So?" A pointed reminder of disastrous Liberal leadership decisions past?

Or — spoiler alert: the thesis of these musings — could it have been a tacit, possibly inadvertent admission of a wistful nostalgia for a Liberal leader who, in retrospect, was a far easier target to attack than the current one?

Ignatieff lost his seat in 2011

Technically, as a colleague noted this morning, it is Ignatieff himself who could claim to have told them so — that is, after all, the gist of the unreleased ad.

Presumably, he would have stuck around if the Liberals had won the election and likely would have remained leader even if they had gained seats while falling short of ousting the Conservatives.

But by the end of that fateful election night, Ignatieff hadn't just watched his party go down to defeat. He had presided over the Liberals' worst showing in modern Canadian history, losing nearly half the seats they'd held before the writ dropped, including his own.

His resignation was a foregone conclusion even before he made it official, and as much as it might have delighted his former adversaries to see him give up his career in academia to lurk the hallways at future Laurier Club fundraisers like a forlorn Phantom of the Opera, it's not particularly surprising that he would go back to his erstwhile day job.

But while the Conservatives — or, at least, the skeleton crew staffing party headquarters during the final days before the 2015 pre-campaign begins in earnest — may have jumped at the opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane, there's no indication the Canadian voting public shares its enthusiasm for reliving the last election campaign.

It's also not clear how, precisely, highlighting Ignatieff's innate, inveterate … Ignatieffness, for want of a better word, will have any noticeable effect on the political fate of his successor.

Justin Trudeau, it's fair to say, couldn't be less Ignatieff-like if he tried.

Reframing their opponents

The Conservatives were ultimately able to recast Ignatieff's strengths as weaknesses.

His international experience, for instance, was carefully restyled to suggest a lacklustre commitment to Canada, his intellect was branded as arrogance and his professorial mannerisms were lampooned as foppish imperiousness.

But over the last year or so, the Conservatives have discovered — possibly to their surprise — that despite what may at first have seemed like a virtually unending supply of ammunition, it hasn't been quite as easy to forcibly reframe Trudeau.

Within months of the launch of the "Just Visiting" campaign, Ignatieff's Liberals — who had been enjoying a modest post-convention honeymoon on top of the polls — had slumped back to second place, where, aside from the occasional fleeting microbounce, they languished until the 2011 election.

In contrast, the most optimistic assessment of the Conservatives' counter-Trudeau strategy would conclude that so far, it doesn't seem to be working as well, or at least as quickly, as they might have hoped.

If the polls can be trusted, their relentless efforts to brand him as a comically inept goofball with My Little Pony hair and a penchant for babbling his fondness for China's dictatorship while simultaneously stripping down to his skivvies for charity seems to be taking longer than expected to sink in to the wider public consciousness.

Issue-based ads may be more effective

It's worth noting that the Conservatives may have found a distinctly more receptive audience for their more serious, issue-centric critiques — the now-familiar radio campaign warning parents that if Trudeau becomes prime minister, their children would be able to buy pot in corner stores, for instance.

Although there are as yet no hard numbers to back up the theory, those ads are believed anecdotally to be a key element in the Conservatives' efforts to squelch any attempt by the Liberals to reconnect with soccer moms, ex-urbanites, or ethnic and cultural communities.

There is also, of course, Trudeau's dependable tendency to provide fresh fodder for future attack ads every other time he goes off-script in front of a microphone.

But even if the Conservatives can build on the as yet unproven success of their more nuanced messaging, it's becoming clear that it won't be easy to turn Trudeau into a liability for his party.

It's no wonder some Conservatives may want to reminisce fondly of those halcyon days when a damning catchphrase, an ominously toned voice-over and a strategically edited video was enough to bring down a Liberal leader.

About the Author

Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.


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