An ironic footnote to the Flanagan affair

As at least one news organization has noted, Tom Flanagan was Stephen Harper’s campaign manager in the 2004 federal election when the Conservative Party levelled charges against then-Prime Minister Paul Martin strikingly similar to those that so damaged Flanagan last week.

At the heart of the beleaguered professor’s misgivings about child porn laws is the question of when and how the legal system should intervene to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. A similar, though not identical, issue separated the Conservative Party of Canada from the other three other parties contesting the 2004 election.

The details of the dispute are not particularly important, but you can read about them in this CBC backgrounder from June of that year. What is pertinent is Harper campaign’s decision, 10 days before the election, to issue a news release condemning the Liberal position under the  headline, “Paul Martin Supports Child Pornography?”

The tactic misfired badly. Most people found the allegation offensive. It reinforced public suspicions of Harper as a zealous ideologue. The Conservatives, who had been nipping at the Liberals’ heels, slipped in the closing days of the campaign, and finished with a disappointing 99 seats to the minority Liberals’ 135.

What part Flanagan played in the episode is uncertain, but given his role as campaign manager and putative Harper confidant, it is at least plausible that he supported the foolhardy tactic. Writing later that fall in the poly-sci journal Policy Options, former Progressive Conservative campaign chair Graham Fox offered this analysis:

The release was a colossal mistake that simply cannot be forgiven in the major leagues, but it was just that: a mistake. No one would believe that a staffer in the Tory war room actually thought the prime minister supported harm being brought to children. It was an overzealous reaction to the cut and thrust of an election campaign. The bigger mistake was the leader’s unwillingness to acknowledge the incident for what it was, apologize and move on. The event should have been a stumble that lasted one hour. It became a debacle that lasted several days and forced a break in the leader’s tour to make time for a team huddle and regroup.

The offence is instructive on two levels. First, it reveals the rigidness of Team Harper’s approach to politics…. More so than the offending comments themselves, the Conservative campaign’s inflexibility in this regard proved to be its Achilles’ heel.

More worrisome for Tory supporters, however, is the apparent reason behind at least some of the campaign’s inflexibility. Speaking off the record, many senior Conservative strategists tell a troubling story about the discussions in the war room that followed reports of comments made by Tory candidates or other bad news items. It wasn’t just that the campaign could not adapt, but that it was difficult to convince the leader’s inner circle that such comments were even a problem that warranted a reaction. They could not predict that a great number of Canadians would be offended by the false allegations made against Martin and would rally to his defence. They could not foresee the backlash against their own leader and against the candidates in swing ridings.

Cut to 2013. Does anyone actually think that Tom Flanagan supports harm being brought to children? The charge is just as outlandishly crass as the CPC’s assertions about Martin. But whereas nine years ago, raising such an overblown charge cost Harper seats, and possibly the election, the same charge against Flanagan last week touched off a devastatingly destructive moral fury. Flanagan must wonder if he has stepped into Reverso-World.

I have no particular brief for Flanagan, but the attacks on him strike me as bizarre and offensive. What is this impulse, so common today, for citizens to work themselves into sanctimonious lather in support of moral positions so obvious and universal we ought to be able to take them as given? Seriously. Can witch trials be far behind?

[A few links to the 2004 controversy survive on line, including this CBC News story after Harper changed the headline on the release but prolonged the damage it caused, this parody, the CBC backgrounder, the Policy Options piece, Wikipedia’s entry on the election, and a couple of contemporaneous blogs.]