Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty: Background check

Why does Jean Charest’s new YouTube ad seem so familiar? Paul Wells explains

(UPDATED with new pure speculation at the bottom.)

Beleaguered Jean Charest is finally explaining himself to Quebecers — in a one-minute Youtube ad:

(The near-identical French version, which more Quebecers will see, is here.)

It all seemed so familiar. The white background, the opening reference to lousy polls, the take-me-or-leave-me message. I immediately thought of this ad Dalton McGuinty used to soften up the Ontario electorate shortly before last year’s provincial election:

You can see why the McGuinty ads would be a tempting example for Charest. They were part (only part) of a strategy that brought the Ontario Liberal back from a 20-point hole to win (tenuous, not-quite-majority) re-election. Dan Gagnier, who’s returned as Charest’s chief of staff to help him prepare for what will surely be his last electoral battle, win or lose, is the kind of guy who’d notice what’s worked elsewhere: before he first worked for Charest several years ago, Gagnier was chief to McGuinty’s Ontario predecessor, David Peterson.

Circumstance and execution have kept the Charest ad from too closely resembling McGuinty’s. The Ontarian had a record of achievement to recount; Charest can only stare glumly and claim unpopularity as its own reward. McGuinty’s suit, hair and even his skin tone helped him stand out from the crisp white background; Charest’s jacket is off, his hair and shirt fade into the dingy whitish background. He looks like we’ve seen a ghost.

Charest’s ad may help. His stance on tuition fees, broadly though hardly unanimously supported by Quebecers, is the only thing keeping his Liberals from total collapse in voter support. That Quebec is now, finally, in the run-up to an election is hardly in doubt.

UPDATE: Some of the other early commentary on the Charest ad notes that he looks like hell. And indeed it’s so. But I’m wondering whether it’s not intentional.

First, a leader’s appearance is easy to control. Confidante at his ear to whisper pep talks until the camera rolls, competent lighting crew, touch of powder on the forehead, and bingo: even Bernard Landry, Ernie Eves, Michael Ignatieff and other doomed leaders have looked like a million bucks as their campaign staffs wheeled them to the precipice.

I look forward to finding out, some day, whether it was incompetence that made Charest look like a zombie — or whether his staff wanted it that way.

Why the hell would a campaign want their leader looking haggard? Because in rare circumstances it can help. The worst possible thing for Charest right now would be to look like he was cheerfully capitalizing on an epidemic of urban violence to improve his electoral stakes. If he smirks, he loses. But as Stephen Harper showed in 2011, heavier than in 2008 and slouching and pissed off, the set-upon leader thing can do wonders for one’s electoral success.

The other classic example is Jean Chrétien in his televised 1995 address to the nation(s) five days before the Quebec secession referendum. He looked lousy. And the polls started to turn. There’s a school of thought in the old No committee, not unanimous, that all it took was the head of government looking worried. Suddenly everything got a bit more real for voters.

Anyway, the simpler theory is just that Charest looks rough because he feels rough. We’ll know some day.

UPPERDATE: As a reader points out, Charest looked more hale in this video shot only about 10 days earlier:


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