29 October 2010

Kremlinology 27: Going negative early has its risks

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can be forgiven this week if they thought they’d entered the savage world of American politics complete with its intense and highly orchestrated personal attacks.

While the 2011 provincial election campaign has been underway since last spring, the provincial Conservatives went negative this week with a pre-emptive attack on the Liberal party.  The pretext for the attack was the opposition office’s new communications director, Craig Westcott.

Conservative leader Danny Williams was characteristically blunt in justifying both the attack itself and the violation of the province’s privacy laws by the release of an e-mail Westcott wrote to the Premier’s office in February 2009.

I did feel it was important that the people of the province know who they’re dealing with and what they’re dealing with when this man is now an integral part of the official opposition in this province.

The task of leading the attack went to Kevin O’Brien, recently promoted from a low-level portfolio to the slightly more demanding job of municipal affairs. O’Brien noted the idea as well of letting people know what  - supposedly - they could expect from the Liberals:

It's sad really to see the Opposition take that path because what I see is a fellow that can't even contain himself with regard to expressing that hatred."

These statements stand out because they characterise something that had not occurred.  Both Williams and O’Brien drew attention to what they considered Westcott’s personal “hatred” for the Premier. 

Westcott has been characteristically blunt in his criticism of Williams, but his comments have been typically not as personal as Williams presents them.  And sure, Westcott made plain  - before he started the job – that he was concerned about Williams’ impact on politics and the potential the Williams’ Conservatives could win all 48 seats in the provincial legislature.  But at the point O’Brien mentioned the e-mail, the opposition itself hadn’t gone anywhere near negative.

Interestingly, Westcott described Williams accurately in 2007:

it's impossible to avoid being negative about a leader who is so negative himself, especially about his critics and some of the people who try to do business in this province.

And Williams and his crowd took great offense at anything and everything Westcott said.  For his part, Westcott released a raft of e-mails with Williams’ communications director at a time when Westcott published a local newspaper and couldn’t get an interview with Williams. Westcott ran for the federal Conservatives in 2008, largely as a personal gesture in reaction to Williams’ anti-Harper crusade.  One of the consequences is that CBC stopped using him as a commentator after the election.

That isn’t just background for the most recent shots in an ongoing personal feud,  nor does it suggest that both sides are equally guilty of anything. Westcott started his new job on Monday morning.  On Wednesday, the Conservatives launched the assault. Until then, there was nothing other than the known animosity between Westcott and Williams. The point to note is that the Conservatives characterised what Westcott and the Liberals would do in the future. 

But that prediction – and all the negative implications – are entirely a fiction created by Williams’ Conservatives.

Going negative isn’t something new for Williams.  He likes the ploy and has used it on everyone from Stephen Harper to a previously unknown lawyer named Mark Griffin.  Around the same time Westcott sent the now infamous – and previously private – e-mail, Williams labelled Griffin a traitor.  Williams also started a lengthy battle with the Globe and Mail over a column that speculated about Williams’ possible motives in expropriating assets from three private companies in central Newfoundland.

Nor is it the first time Williams has tried to put words into someone else’s mouth.  in the most famous episode cabinet minister John Hickey sued then opposition leader Roger Grimes for defamation.  The case quietly disappeared because Hickey sued Grimes not for what Grimes said but for what Williams attributed to Grimes.

The provincial Conservatives are a tough and effective political organization.  They bring message discipline and zeal to the table. On top of that they have an army of enthusiastic sock puppets who will fill any Internet space and radio talk show with pre-programmed lines. Going nasty and negative is second nature to them.

The curious thing about the episode is that Williams could easily have waited until the first lump of mud came hurling his way. 

But he didn’t.

He sent O’Brien out as his crap flinger, first.

Taking the first shot, going negative in this way, this early in a campaign would be a risky venture in any case in Newfoundland and Labrador. Most voters aren’t engaged in politics and the overwhelming majority aren’t thinking about the election yet.  Local politics is anything but the highly competitive, ideologically-divided wasteland of the United States. People don’t like taking the battle-axe to the heads of their neighbours and friends. 

Politics can be competitive, but heavily negative campaigning doesn’t bring any great benefits.  Going negative early carries a risk of alienating people from the Conservatives and from politics generally. And it’s not like Williams has a surplus of voter support he can afford to tick off with negative campaigning.  He won in 2003 and again in 2007 with about the same number of votes, about the same share of total eligible vote.  That’s because Williams’ voters consist of a core of traditional Conservative supporters plus a group of voters who have voted for other parties, usually Liberal, in the past.  

For someone with Williams’ reputation, however, there is the added danger that yet more relentless negativity will affect his own support. Voters may not be able to stomach a full year of his highly concentrated political bile on top of the seven years they’ve already witnessed. Even Conservatives have been known to revolt against Williams’ diktats.  In 2008, Conservatives in St. John’s South-Mount Pearl voted heavily for the New Democratic Party, despite the fact that four prominent cabinet ministers campaigned for the Liberal. In other ridings, they just stayed home in response to Williams’ personal anti-Harper crusade.

There are signs that voters, generally, in some parts of the province are discontented if not slightly cranky. Williams’ Conservatives have already started trying to mollify concerns over some issues. Public money is flowing freely in announcements about spending for new outdoor basketball courts or cassettes for x-ray machines.  A news conference heralding a new case of DVDs or a packet of screws can’t be far behind. 

The provincial Conservatives have also telegraphed that they are worried about voter attitudes toward the party, generally. Maybe it wouldn’t take much to see the sort of rejection of the Conservatives that happened in the Straits and White Bay North spread to other districts along the northeast coast and other parts of central and western Newfoundland and into Labrador.

In a sense, going negative early suggests the Conservatives are particularly sensitive about any prospect that a resurgent Liberal Party might be able to capitalise on voter discontent. It reinforces the idea that Williams’ personal smear of Marystown mayor Sam Synyard had more to do with a fear of political rivals than anything else.

In the insider baseball world of political reporting in this province, this week’s drama about an e-mail and a communications director may looks like one thing to some people.  But if you look more closely, another picture may appear.

No matter what, the next 12 months could bring some of the most interesting political developments in years.

- srbp -

Outside the Overpass Update:  The Overpass is to Newfoundland and Labrador politics as the beltway is to American federal politics.  In that light, consider this e-mail from the province’s other daily that puts the week’s game of insider baseball in perspective:  “Get back to work”.

Going negative this early has its risks.

28 comments:

D'Arcy Butler said...

Hey Ed,

How come you don't actually mention the content of the email that launched the "intense and highly orchestrated personal attack".

The Liberals brought this on themselves to some extent. Did Kelvin Parsons really think that Westcott's original email was simply a joke or a lark? It was a rude and highly personal attack on the Premier. Not don't get me wrong, I think hisself, as you like to call him is a pure bully, and I don't support him, but c'mon, let the whole story not emerge.

Or are you a student of Kreminology yourself?

A proud dipper.

Ursula said...

Déjà Vu or what ??????

When a certain person announced his intention to run for the Liberals in Topsail , a story appeared on the front page of The Telegram about Daffodil House .

Now this , coincidence ?

WJM said...

How come you don't actually mention the content of the email that launched the "intense and highly orchestrated personal attack".

When there's, what, 19 months between the email — whose contents would never have seen the public eye but for the actions of the recipient — and the "attack", "launched" is not exactly the verb I'd use.

Ron said...

Well now that we are agreed that people with mental illnesses and STDs shouldn't hold public office can we move on to discuss the bounty Ed concludes the Liberal party will harvest from this negative attack on their Director of Communications?

Dylan said...

So it is ok for Westcott to publish emails of his correspondence between Matthews and himself in his paper but when Matthews released Westcott's email that was in bad form because it wasn't immediate but it took 19 months?
Also, it shows poor judgment. If you don’t want things like this to get out then don’t write them in an email. Don’t start blaming the recipients. It’s email. One press of a button can forward it to millions of people!
This also goes for text messaging! Ask Tiger Woods and Bret Farve!
This really doesn’t look good on Westcott’s part and therefore it also makes the Liberal Party look bad. Sorry. The Liberals can try and spin this anyway they want to but please don’t insult the people’s intelligence. “It’s a joke people, c’mon…They have no sense of humour over there” Really, you think that suggesting that a person, that is well known that you don’t like, may be bipolar or is in the late stages of syphilis should be taken just as a funny ribbing? Just like two friends would do over a beer?
Listen, Danny Williams is no choir boy himself and I think his act of being highly offended is a bit much considering how much he likes to attack his opposition with name calling but even he didn’t go as far as suggesting that someone may have an STD.
Well, the PC party won this PR round in my opinion.
Don't worry though. Like all things it will blow over in time.

Peter said...

Amen, Ron.

WJM said...

Don’t start blaming the recipients. It’s email.

And when the recipients are government employees, at their government email addresses, in the course of their government jobs, they are bound by provincial law.

At least in the provinces where they still adhere to quaint notions like the rule of law, anyway.

Edward Hollett said...

First of all, let me thank you guys for coming forward and proving my point: the typical Newfoundlander or Labradorian is simply not engaged in political issues and the election at this point.

The very fact you are here is because you have an active partisan or similar (personal?) interest in this. Some of you self-identified clearly as such (Bravo, D'Arcy). Others make plain your partisan interest by your use of the stock talking points. Peter, as always adds his unique perspective. Similar comments to yours have turned up elsewhere.

By going negative so quickly, the Conservatives are taking a gamble, especially when the populace is essentially politically cold. Think of it like sprinting without warming up first. Problem is there is no race; there is no fight - yet - except in the minds of some.

The fact they could not wait more than three days suggests a certain nervousness or anxiety in the Conservative camp about Westcott and the Liberals. The fact they used this e-mail - as opposed to rafts of toehr Westcottisms - is way more than curious. Frankly, there is more than enough in public that they could have chimed in without releasing this e-mail.

That said, my comments are, in part, along the lines of some observations made by Alex Marland on CBC on Thursday. (He's hardly a Liberal spinner.) Going negative early suggests a certain tension or anxiety. Going negative runs a risk of pissing off lots of voters.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people wondering what is going to happen next. Frankly, what peaked my interest is that first CBC was on this day in and out before Wednesday and then the Conservatives couldn't wait to send Kevin out.

And so I keep doing something Peter evidently hates ;-) - I ask a question:

Why?

The simple act of asking the question and of being skeptical in the first place usually puts you on a road to all sorts of interesting places where you can see things others miss.

No one - guys - could miss you and your perspective in this.

Cain said...

Westcott's email was stupid. It might be a funny thing to say on a Friday night when you're chewing the rag over a few beers, but it was a stupid, stupid thing to write.

Having said that, on the scale of mistakes (wearing white after Labour day being 1 and invading Russia in the winter being 10), this is much closer to a 1.

What is much more interesting is Kelvin Parsons' even more stupid quip that the whole thing was a joke. No sensible communications director would ever advise such a defence and therein lies the rub.

There will be many times when Westcott's visceral hatred for Williams will perfectly square with the talking points that the Liberals want to hammer. But there will be other times where following his advice will lead the Liberals to places that they really don't want to go. And if you have to always second guess the advice you're being given, then the advice is worthless.

The Liberals seem to have made some good hires in research/communications, but Westcott wasn't one of them. After a respectable lapse of time, he needs to resign.

WJM said...

But there will be other times where following his advice will lead the Liberals to places that they really don't want to go.

Like where?

If only certain other Liberals and Dippers, and former Liberals and Dippers, had had the same desire to see the end of the Danny Williams years.

Peter said...

Cain:
You hit the nail on the heads. CW has trouble written all over him.

WJM:
You ask where the Liberals might not want to go? I'm waiting for Westoctt to haul out a few swastikas and start waving them around. If you think that's far-fetched, you don't know Westcott.

Ron said...

Hugs and kisses right back at ya Ed.

As I said, undoubtedly there is a bounty here for the Liberal party and already we can see them reaping the rewards from same. But if they get many more benefits from Williams negative attacks they'll need a chinese phrasebook.

There are probably some pithy aphorisms from Sun Tsu about this kind of thing. Something along the lines of "Attack early attack often". I have no idea, but the whole thing doesn't strike me as nerviousness it strikes me as hubris. This is a gov't on top of their game and they just took out one of their main opponents 3 days into his new job. Its cigars and brandy in the Premier's office this afternoon.

Will Williams reap the whirlwind? Sure, I suppose, but not this week. This week Westcott got his blowback from playing abit of his own negative politics. And the PCs have sown fear, uncertainty and dissesion within the ranks of the official opposition. For Williams and the PCs this was a very good week.

Simon Lono said...

". . . they just took out one of their main opponents 3 days into his new job."

I can can assure the body politic that the premier will not be exercising hegemony over staffing in the Opposition office - his kind suggestions have been rejected.

Cain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Simon:
Curious to know how the Westcott gambit jibes with your dearly held mission to restore a more respectful tone to politics.

Cain said...

Wally;

You've got a nice cushy job in Ottawa that you can have for as long as Todd is MP (ie forever) and there's not a damn thing wrong with that.

But if you're going to say things like, "If only certain other Liberals and Dippers, and former Liberals and Dippers, had had the same desire to see the end of the Danny Williams years."

Then perhaps it's time for you to put up or shut up.

In other words, take a leave of absence, go home, and run against Hickey next October.

Otherwise, you're like the 2005 Polaris Fusion 900 I used to have ... all show and no go.

Edward Hollett said...

Thanks for coming along Ron and adding yet more of the same.

Interesting how clear things are from the land of the midnight sun.

WJM said...

Then perhaps it's time for you to put up or shut up.

In other words, take a leave of absence, go home, and run against Hickey next October.


No. I have no desire to be elected to anything, ever. Thanks for thinking of me, though.

There are other ways, lots of them, to express one's desire to bring about the end of teh Danny Williams era.

Who are you, by the way?

Dylan said...

Hi Ed,

I just wanted to say that I'm not partisan at all. I'm just a regular guy with a regular job who found your blog an interesting. I have no affiliation with any political party at all.

I just commented because I just wanted to express my opinion on your blog. You allow comments so I felt it was ok to express them. If you wish, I won't post any more comments.

I just wanted to clear the air just say my opinions are honest and are my own. I was one of the few who actually voted for Westcott last election because I thought the whole ABC thing was silly and he made a great point about Jack Harris. "You know, Jack is a nice guy and everything but I can't think of one thing that he actually did while he was elected."

Anyway, just wanted to clear the air. Nothing sinister here.

Have a great day,
Dylan

Edward Hollett said...

It isn't sinister anyway, Dylan.

That's one of the many things about my remarks on sock puppetry and plants and partisan comments that people seem to misread. I think it is fundamentally dishonest but my purpose is more to flag it for people who think this stuff is spontaneous when it isn't.

If I mistook you, then that's my error. You look (no profile; just a name) and sound like one so it's no surprise.

Hopefully, if you are indeed just a regular person without a partisan affiliation this post prompted you to think a bit more about what is going on in the media and elsewhere. reasonable people can disagree reasonable and no harm or foul intended from my end.

But seriously.

Normal people are just not thinking about politics all that much right now. And the others are old hands at the political, online sock puppet world. You just wandered in in the middle of them.

Cain said...

And by the way Dylan:

Ed is not the slightest bit partisan.
Just like Bill O'Reilly, he's fair and balanced.

And he most certainly is not a sock puppet. He can't afford socks.

Edward Hollett said...

The same tired lines, over and over again just wear out eventually Cain.

Peter said...

Ed:
I just realized ... You ACTUALLY BELIEVE you're non-partisan! Now it all makes sense.
Hallelujah!

Edward Hollett said...

Sorry to disappoint, Peter, but I haven't got the Number One item on your lengthy list of self-delusions.

But then again, as I have always maintained, the only people who raise my political affiliation are people who are - themselves - partisans. As a matter of fact, the only ones who keep going over the same worn line again and again are local Conservatives.

They do it - again as I've noted countless times before before - because they can't deal with the substance of any of my posts.

Attack the man, Peter when you can't deal with anything else. And frankly, keep it up because all it does is highlight your own inadequacy.

Cain said...

PR/Communications 101

Successful PR/Communications professionals are guided by two unbreakable rules.

RULE ONE

Spoon the shit out. Don't eat it yourself.

RULE TWO

See rule one.

Edward Hollett said...

So that would make you unsuccessful Cain. You never got past the first sentence.

Ursula said...

@Ron , if you must quote the great philosopher Sun Tzu please try to maintain the spirit of his enlightened thinking .

I have structured my way of life around the Tao Teh Ching (Lao Tzu)and the writings of Sun Tzu .

"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill".~Sun Tzu~

Ursula said...

It is "pure madness".

We accept and are told often that the people in positions of trust and authority are the best available and this crosses all boundries , politics , business ,education , religion and justice.

Each in turn has held up their leaders as the apex of qualification .


Yet few have to endure the rigours of a psychological profiling .