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Trudeau is Layton's successor in 'positive' politics

Justin Trudeau should never quote Jack Layton again. He doesn't need to. He can win in 2015 the way Mr. Layton nearly did in 2011: by convincing voters that he's running a positive campaign, even when he isn't.

If Mr. Trudeau was wrong to quote his party's dead adversary, then it's not because it's unfair to hold the NDP to Mr. Layton's purported standards; it's because Mr. Trudeau committed the sin of punditry – commenting on events that he should instead be seeking to shape. He ought to keep learning and living Mr. Layton's lessons, but we can expect him to do more "show" and less "tell."

Mr. Layton, like Mr. Trudeau, understood one of politics' dirty little secrets: that there's actually no such thing as a purely positive campaign, except in voters' imaginations. Mr. Trudeau, like Mr. Layton, has acted accordingly.

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Competitive elections are by definition adversarial; if you put your name on a ballot, you're supposed to persuade people not to support others who have done the same. Political operatives justify this necessary negativity by describing it in terms that range from benign – "candidate differentiation," "demanding honesty," "talking about policy differences" – to sinister –"suppression," "exposing weaknesses," "negative ads." You try to characterize your opponent's attacks as "personal," and your own as "on the issues." Partisans spend hours debating the difference, but there's actually no crisp distinction between the two.

Most campaigns, at the very least, "go negative" by attacking their opponents for doing the same, and politicians who allow themselves to attack their opponents "on the issues" usually dabble in broader broadsides, as well. When those same politicians make bold, absolute pronouncements against negativity in politics, they're usually guilty of hypocrisy. But, in politics, this is how the game is played.

So it was when Jack Layton, in his last political testament, wrote that "love is better than anger" and "hope is better than fear." He no doubt meant those words sincerely, but for those of us who, just a few months earlier, had been on the receiving end of NDP negativity, it was difficult to watch Mr. Layton canonize himself as the patron saint of positive politics. Remember that it was Mr. Layton, not Stephen Harper, who ran the first negative attack ads against Michael Ignatieff.

The irony of Justin Trudeau's Monday night name-dropping is that he was using Mr. Layton's words to do exactly what Mr. Layton did: provide his own, more positive, version of recent history. The Liberals didn't exactly refrain from attacking their opponents during last month's by-election campaigns, yet there was Mr. Trudeau, resplendent in victory, lecturing the NDP on the power of love and hope in the face of anger and fear.

Mr. Trudeau, like Mr. Layton, has grasped a crucial insight: in politics, you can indulge in negativity and yet convince voters that you've run a positive campaign. Had Mr. Layton not done so during the 2011 election, he might not have died as leader of the opposition. If Mr. Trudeau does the same in 2015, he might well emerge as prime minister.

For all his many virtues, Thomas Mulcair lacks Mr. Layton's magic: his ability to twist the knife with a smile on his face, to come across as a happy warrior while dropping negative campaign flyers on doorsteps and putting attack ads on the air. Mr. Layton didn't win by running positive campaigns; he won by sustaining the illusion that he was doing so. Mr. Mulcair has so far proved incapable of doing the same.

The advantage that was once the NDP's is now the Liberals'. Standing beside Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau is the candidate who looks like change. He's charismatic, he's young and looks younger, he's got a million-megawatt smile and a photogenic family. Put Mr. Trudeau next to Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper, and ask the average voter to guess which one will run the positive, loving, hopeful campaign in the next election. They won't pick Mr. Mulcair, just as they didn't pick Michael Ignatieff in 2011, and a growing number of NDP supporters know it.

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When those New Democrats reacted angrily to Mr. Trudeau's late-night Laytonalia on Monday, part of their outrage was fuelled by genuine reverence for their party's late leader. The rest of their anger came from a different source: fear. New Democrats and their leader went full-tilt negative in this month's byelections. They lost all of them by wide margins. Worse, Monday's results suggest that Mr. Trudeau may be able to do what Mr. Layton did: keep his own message positive while his party deploys negative tactics on the ground, and still persuade voters that he personifies positivity, love, hope, and change. Mr. Layton did it in 2011. Barack Obama did it in 2008 – campaigning on "hope" while declaring that John McCain was running "for George W. Bush's third term." If Justin Trudeau does something similar in 2015, he might yet not win Stephen Harper's job, but he'll be the favourite for Thomas Mulcair's.

The NDP's recent outrage suggests that they'll find this forecast demoralizing, even infuriating. But, if they do, then perhaps they can take their cue from Wilfrid Laurier, and "remember that faith is better than doubt and love is better than hate."

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, a former Liberal speechwriter, and a contributor to CBC News: The National.

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