Ken Boessenkool: For Trudeau, is this a repeat of 2004? Or of 2006?
O’Toole has a much more impressive campaign team than Harper, circa 2004. But the Liberal counterattack is coming.
By: Ken Boessenkool
Aging political warriors see everything through the lens of their own memory.
And with that, I feel compelled to ask: Is 2021 a repeat of 2004 or a repeat of 2006?
In late May of 2004, as he always seemed to do, Paul Martin called a national election campaign at the wrong time. Three or four months earlier would have caught us Conservatives utterly exhausted and completely unprepared. We had just merged the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties on Dec. 7, 2003 and elected Stephen Harper leader on March 20, 2004. Paul Martin gave us three months to recover and plan for an election in June.
His excuse? He needed to launch his “mad as hell” tour that reminded everyone how corrupt the Liberal party was. He then appointed Judge John Gomery to root around and get all the grimy details.
We couldn’t believe our good fortune. As someone said in one of our campaign meetings, “Never underestimate your opponent. Except this guy makes it really hard.”
That was sure sign of our inexperience. Our senior team was made up of a bunch of Albertans with lots of academic credentials, but precious few political campaigns, under their belts. About two thirds through the campaign, with a lead in the polls, we speculated about winning a majority government. And we were foolish and cocky enough to believe it. (So cocky we ended the campaign with an Alberta victory lap!) We pulled key people off the campaign to develop a transition plan. Big mistake. One in a series.
That left us utterly unprepared for the barrage of fire from the Liberals (“hidden agenda to destroy health care and restrict abortion”), combined with embarrassingly bad series of shots we fired into our own feet (“Liberal bureaucracy, judges and senators”), arms (allowing abortion private member’s bill) and eventually, our heads (“Paul Martin supports child pornography”). Paul Martin closed the deal by reminding Canadians that he had slayed the deficit — playing a winning competence card.
In the end, Canadians decided we weren’t quite ready for prime time — correctly, to be blunt. Mr. Mad as Hell was held to a minority.
We far exceeded expectations — including our own — and a minority meant we could have a second shot without waiting four years.
Harper didn’t see it that way. He sent us away to do the most detailed and exhausting post mortem imaginable. He wanted us to painstakingly reconstruct the campaign, outline every single mistake we made, and tell him how we would correct it next time. As he said then, and still holds today, “In order to win, Conservatives need to run a perfectly flawless campaign. Liberals can often win with less than flawless.”
That took some time. As in a long time because the fixes included bringing in folks who understood Ontario the way we understood Alberta — folks like the strategically brilliant Patrick Muttart and the wily tactical genius Doug Finlay. While that was going on, Martin missed more opportunities to catch us unprepared — thank you, Belinda Stronach.
He finally called the election in December 2005 opting for an 83 day campaign straddling Christmas. He then spent the time before Christmas … well, I don’t recall what he did. I mean, who calls a campaign without being prepared to campaign?
Word was they would start campaigning in earnest after Christmas. Meanwhile we were launching a policy per day — GST cuts, choice in child-care cash benefits, a tough-on-crime package, a health wait-times guarantee and a grab bag of stuff to remind Canadians how corrupt the Liberals were (with all the proof points we needed supplied by Judge Gomery). By Christmas polls had us moving comfortably forward — internally we had a small lead when we took 36 hours to go see our families for Christmas.
In January the Liberal plane couldn’t get off the ground. It gave Canadians the perfect metaphor for the campaign. It carried the news for days. News people watched.
We continued to run as flawless a campaign as its possible to run. Clockwork announcements. A relaunch of the campaign in January establishing our “Five Priorities.” We were soaring and the Liberals couldn’t get off the ground. Literally.
And when the Liberal barrage came, they aimed one of their guns at their own feet. “Soldiers in the streets,” was taken for what it was: a signal of desperation at team Liberal. We managed to avoid firing shots at ourselves. Transition planning had started months before and didn’t involve the campaign team.
After an exhausting 83 days, Canadians decided Harper could take a constrained shot at being prime minister — the Conservatives won 21 more seats than the second-place Liberals, but were still dozens short of a majority.
(A quick aside: I’ve written here previously how campaigns today aren’t like campaigns past. That speaks to how campaigns get their messages to Canadians. I’m focusing here on what messages are getting to Canadians.)
So, will Erin O’Toole succumb to the coming barrage, stumble himself and lose the lead an increasing number of polls show us he holds today? Or will he continue to gain the confidence of Canadians and get enough seats to take a shot at being prime minister on September 20?
I have no idea.
O’Toole has a much more seasoned and impressive campaign team than Harper, circa 2004. Dan Robertson is every bit as impressive as Patrick Muttart. Fred DeLory ain’t as storied as Doug Finley, but he’s no neophyte.
O’Toole will need not only to continue a flawless campaign, but Canadians will need to very quickly become comfortable with the idea of O’Toole as prime minister. And Conservatives will need to avoid firing any shots at themselves. The campaign directly controls one of those things and can influence the other two only indirectly.
And the barrage is coming. True, the Liberals have (mis)fired some shots early in this campaign. But they are nowhere near done. And when fear (and desperation) sets in you can expect their attacks to become much more effective, surgical and brutal. O’Toole needs to brace himself, not fall into traps, and hope his wider team doesn’t step on a rake, or worse.
As for Trudeau, at the start of this campaign he looked as uncertain and lost as Martin did in the early going in both 2004 and 2006. The question is whether he can regain his charm mantle the way Martin regained his competence mantle in 2004. Or whether he’ll fail to relaunch like Martin in 2006.
Again, I have no idea. But this aging political warrior is at the edge of my seat. You should be too.
To quote the late, great F1 commentator Murray Walker: “Anything could happen, and it probably will.”
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