Political Civil Wars and Why They Happen

(Note: This post originally appeared as a column in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

Back in the summer of 2010, while working in America, I responded to a sincerely offered peace initiative with an equally sincere declaration of war.

And no, I wasn’t a diplomat.

Rather, I was part of a US Republican Senatorial primary campaign team and the “peace initiative” took the form a letter from the state party chairman, who was urging my candidate (and the other candidates in the race) to refrain from attacking fellow Republicans.

As the chairman’s letter put it, “That tactic will not help you win the general election, and in fact, can even destroy your primary chances. I urge all the campaigns to be smart, and not let this escalate into a Democrat-benefiting spectacle.”

It was an impassioned plea to be sure, but our campaign, which had been coming under heavy fire from hostile “Third Parties,” was not in any sort of mood to play nice.

So our response, which I helped draft, had our candidate boldly declaring: “I will not back away from my engagement in this campaign on the issues, and I will not walk away from defending myself.”

In other words, we were politely telling the state chairman to “stick it.”

Indeed, mere hours after posting our defiant reply on the campaign’s website, we launched TV attack ads targeting our main Republican rival, setting in motion a “Democrat-benefiting spectacle”.

Just as the state chairman feared, the race quickly escalated into a series of vicious attacks and counter-attacks, leading one prominent journalist to dub it America’s most “toxic” primary.

Ahh, good times.

At any rate, the reason I’m bringing this story up, is it illustrates the dilemma currently facing both the Conservative and New Democratic federal parties as they carry on with their own respective national leadership races.

Simply put, during such races there’s always tension between those in the party who hold a long-term perspective and those who mainly focus on the short term.

The “long-termers”, such as the state party chairman in my tale, are those who see any internecine conflict within their party ranks as ultimately self-defeating.

“What’s so good about winning a leadership race (or a primary),” the long-termers ask, “if the victor is battered, bruised and covered with mud?”

The “short- termers”, on the other hand, care less about the future and more about the present.

And if in the present, their side needs to go negative against fellow candidates in order to win, well, so be it, consequences be damned.

“Win now, worry later” could be the short- termer motto.

Of course, the main difference between long-termers and short-termers, is the latter usually has “skin in the game”.

That’s to say short-termers are usually the candidates in the race (along with their entourage of consultants, strategists and pollsters), who naturally have a big stake in winning.

My point is, it’s easy for somebody like interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who actually isn’t in the leadership race herself and who has nothing to lose personally, to hover above the fray and lecture, as she recently did, all the leadership candidates about the strategic importance of speaking with “one united voice”.

But if you’re battling out in the trenches, if your career or reputation is on the line, if your campaign is sinking, it’s hard to accept the idea that you should gracefully lose for the sake of some partisan “common good.”

By the way, in the American campaign I mentioned earlier, my candidate ultimately lost in the primary, but the Republican rival we incessantly bashed with TV attack ads went on to win the general election.

Take that long termers!

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