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Campaign Confidential (What's this?)

Campaign Confidential Campaign Confidential was a diary by a writer who is no stranger to political campaigns in this country. Throughout the election, the author was anonymous, described only as a political pro, a veteran of more than a quarter-century of elections, leadership races and conventions. The National asked for a brief twice-weekly note of insider perspective.

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, the day after the election, the writer appeared on The National and was revealed as Rick Anderson, a political strategist for the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.

Tues., Jan. 24, 2006
The final instalment

Questions, questions. The voters got change, but none of the parties got the clear answers they'd hoped for.

The Conservatives won, but without the mandate to really implement their program.

The NDP gained in English Canada nearly as much as the Conservatives, but, thanks to being buzzed with friendly fire, not as much as they might have.

The Bloc prediction that Quebecers would punish the Liberals came true, but with new Conservatives, not the Bloc, and they failed to gain their predicted majority of the vote.

And the Liberals? They lost, but not in the rout that many expected. Rather than back to the roots for a rethink, they're stuck on the bubble of a permanently impending election.

So will a Harper 2006 end up more like a '57 Diefenbaker or a '79 Clark? Meaning, do the Tories dance a two-step from here to a big majority, or trip on their toes for a quick Liberal return?

Why did Martin quit so fast? Yes, it was a brutal Liberal campaign, and for sure the knives were coming out, but in the end, the Liberal vote really didn't fall that far. Will the parties and their leaders learn to get along in Parliament? Can they work together for a few years, or is it all just going to be name-calling and another quick election?

What's with you city voters in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver? You know, there are more of us out here than those of you in the big three. How come you keep expecting us to join you rather than you joining us?

And finally, can we not make our electoral system work better? There are millions of us out here whose votes go unrepresented after this election. Liberals in Alberta, Conservatives in Toronto, federalists in Quebec, Greens everywhere. How about we get on with changing that? Sure hate to leave you with all these questions.

Peter Mansbridge: So who's behind our Campaign Confidential? First a little bit about all the calls and e-mails we've received about the insider. No shortage of creative guesswork on your part. Sadly, we don't have the time to pass along all the sleuthing you described to back up your intuition. We can quickly say here are some of the more popular shots in the dark:

Ed Broadbent. Quite a few of you guessed the former NDP leader. Sheila Copps on one hand, Barbara McDougall on the other. Some old pro strategists, Robin Sears, John Lassinger. Jean Chr�tien and Brian Mulroney. There were a few guesses for the former prime ministers. Douglas Fisher took in some of you, and Joe Schlesinger. That got a chuckle from Joe. And just FYI, the person you heard reading Campaign Confidential was veteran voice actor Mark Strange.

All right, time for the outing then.

Well, it is a he, and during the 1980s, he was close to the core of many Liberal campaigns, and then in the 1990s, he was at the centre of both Reform and Canadian Alliance strategic moves.

He is Rick Anderson, and he's here for a quick chat. So, was it fun?

Rick Anderson: It was a lot of fun, Peter. Thanks very much for the opportunity.

Peter Mansbridge: What's it going to be like talking to your old political friends now, after you've been using them, I guess, a little bit, to come up with some ideas on all this?

Rick Anderson: Well, what do you think I'm doing here in Toronto? I'm looking for a place to sleep!

Peter Mansbridge: (Laughs.) What did you make of this campaign result, after all this?

Rick Anderson: Well, I think it was surprising, actually. You know, the mood for a change was obviously pretty strong throughout the campaign, or at least for the last two-thirds of it, probably. But, at the end, it seemed not to be as big a change as a lot of people were predicting earlier on. That surprised me. I was also surprised that Paul Martin quit so quickly last night, although I understand what he would have been facing today, but, you know, the result wasn't quite as negative as seemed to be likely, and maybe he moved a little bit hastily.

Peter Mansbridge: Do you think so? Could there be a strategy behind a hasty movement like that?

Rick Anderson: Well, I don't think that's what there was, but, you know, there will probably be more people thinking he moved too hastily today than if the Liberals had had 85 seats or something yesterday, instead of a hundred and a couple. So, you know, there may be some pressure for him to come back. But I think that exit was quite surprising so quick.

Peter Mansbridge: What are the immediate potential pitfalls for Stephen Harper?

Rick Anderson: I think he's been a little unfortunate in the Conservative seat count not getting at least to the 130 range. And also unfortunate in that the NDP didn't do a little bit better, meaning that if the NDP had been a little bit stronger or the Tories had been a little stronger, the two of them together would have been one of the options that could make things work on a particular bill or particular confidence measure. That's not the case. So he's going to need to count on either the Liberals or the Bloc on a particular vote, which are both fairly unpredictable allies for Stephen Harper, and I think that puts him in a position of vulnerability. On the other hand, we all thought the last minority Parliament might work better than it did, and it didn't work very well. Now everybody's expectations are low this time. Maybe this one will work better.

Peter Mansbridge: Listen, Rick, thanks very much for doing this. Good luck going back to Ottawa.

Rick Anderson: Thank you, Peter.

Mon., Jan. 16, 2006

Think twice

The result of next Monday's election outcome is now assumed, more or less, throughout the campaign war rooms of nearly all the parties. Yes, yes, that "more or less" bit still matters – there are plenty of seats across Canada, which could be the difference between a Tory majority or minority.

But it does seem clear that's the shape of things to come – the Liberals about to take a drubbing, and the Conservative broom sweeping into Ottawa.

But for one party, the outcome remains far from clear. For the NDP, this was supposed to be a big opportunity.

A Liberal party in decline and the re-establishment of the Conservative alternative, that would open the door for a new era of more vigorous centre-right versus centre-left debate, instead of the politically-constipated centre-centre mush.

New Democrats know – most do anyway – that Canada's appetite for a union-handcuffed, anti-business, socialist economics party looks like it maxes out somewhere around 18 per cent.

To moderate New Democrats, Jack Layton seemed a leader able to refashion the party as a centre-left social democratic party. Like Britain's Tony Blair, someone who could lead the party out of an old-fashioned ideological straitjacket and into a new era of policies better tailored for Main Street. Add to that, this started out as an election with voters frustrated with the two main choices, and therefore open to alternatives.

Alas, alas. Instead the party remains stuck at traditional support levels, and even faces new problems of divided loyalties. Think Twice, an organized defector group, publicly encourages erstwhile New Democrats to vote Liberal to avoid the Tories.

Think again, Think Twice. This election is partly about surging Tory support, but it's mainly about plunging Liberal support. The voters first and main impulse is to send the Grits to the woodshed. Supporters of other parties, you would think, might welcome that, rather than trying to shoo voters back to the Liberal fold.

Think Twice. Indeed. Seems it'll take a miracle for Maude Barlow and Buzz Hargrove to save the Liberals now. You'd think people who can make themselves comfortable with Liberal convictions of convenience might spare a moment's thought for reinventing their own party in a principled yet politically effective way.

Used to be the right that was divided. Now it's the left.

Tues., Jan. 10, 2006

A change of mood

There is a time in every election when the shape of the outcome emerges. And even though campaigns are narrow-sighted beasts, that outcome is often discerned somewhat earlier by the participants than by the voters. In this election, has that time arrived?

During the early and middle phases, campaigners subsist, poorly, on an unhealthy diet of fast food, caffeine, and adrenaline, which accounts for the unique blend of stress, panic and exhilaration that describes most campaign war rooms.

Then, both diet and environment change.

In a winning campaign, and the Conservatives currently wear that title, the mid-campaign diet is replaced by fasting. Eating and drinking, are at a minimum. So are sleeping and breathing.

Like a baseball slugger nursing a hot streak, winning campaigns avoid changing routines and jinxing hitters.

Stand tomorrow just as you stood yesterday, tie your shoes in the same order, be polite to the umpire, walk to the plate without a swagger. Do exactly what you did yesterday, and eke out just a few more hits, one day at a time. Conceal the signs of celebration.

On losing campaigns, and even Liberals agree now that they're trailing, the headquarters develop that clubhouse 'quiet' unique to teams down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. Players and fans all know the gloomy stats: comebacks can happen, even from this point. Remember the Red Sox? But how often does that happen?

Fans reminisce about the warning signs from earlier in the season. Bets are placed regarding the coach's tenure. Campaign workers start remembering everyday things forgotten in the earlier frenzy … things like lunch, picking up the dry cleaning, feeding the cat, paying the hydro bill.

Suddenly, where there was no time for anything, there's time to wash the car on the way back to headquarters. Have a drink, or maybe a few. Instead of the frazzled rat-a-tat of keyboards and printers rapid firing the tenth spin-check to deadline-crushed media, of cell phones chirping non-stop, the war room echoes with the hushed sound of resume editing and the guarded chats about job interviews.

In NDP-land, the good and the bad are both equally imaginable. Up to now, this campaign has been a squeeze play, with Jack the meat in the sandwich. It might still turn out that way, leaving the party in tatters. But, maybe, just maybe, a Liberal freefall could put the NDP in second.

Still 13 days to go.

Thurs., Jan. 5, 2006

Well, thinks your red-blooded western Canadian voter, sure hope you folks in Central Canada are going to get it right for a change. Looks like you might – about time, if it's true. You've been electing these Liberals plenty long enough.

By the way, one thing that really riles out here is the way easterners refer to "the West" as if it was all one place, instead of quite a few pretty different kinds of places. Alberta and B.C. have about as much in common as, well, Ontario and Newfoundland.

Easterners think it's all conservative out here, but the West is the only part of Canada where voters have actually elected NDP governments – except by accident, that is, like you Ontarians did that one time.

Unlike you, though, westerners even re-elect New Democrat governments sometimes. The only place in Canada that ever happens. Saskatchewan of course, is the NDP's cradle, except it grew to like Reform quite a bit – and it's almost all Tory these days!

B.C. is ground zero for Canadian environmentalism – and the one place in Canada where the New Democrats actually govern like trade union socialists when they get half a chance.

But it's Alberta that you people are really thinking of when you talk about "The West." Home base for the most unapologetic conservatism in Canada. We love our lowest taxes and lowest unemployment and best-funded schools and hospitals. You should try it sometime. People in Wild Rose Country even find Ralph Klein and Mike Harris a little Red sometimes.

In fact, what worries Alberta Conservatives these days is that Harper lad's trying to buy support in Central Canada, promising to spend money like, well, like a drunken Liberal. And starting to talk about unequal provinces, oh oh... Anyway, here's hoping you folks back east stay on track. We wouldn't want to have to leave you freezing in the dark.

Mon., Jan. 2, 2006

For Liberals, there's trouble in River City, with a capital "T." This campaign isn't going the way true Grits like.

Not that everyone should go overboard over a couple of holiday polls showing a close race. We all know past reports of Liberal demise have proven to be exaggerated. Will Toryphobia send us running again? Is the devil we know still less scary than the one we don't?

Or will Conservatives get another attack of "halogenitis," you know, that curious malady particular to political brains, probably caused by the halogen gas from the overly bright TV lights that always surround them. Makes them so they can't see the world outside their orbit.

Harper had a bad attack of it last campaign. Just when voters started thinking about a first date, he was rushing off to plan the wedding and honeymoon and decorate the house, boasting about a Tory majority, setting up transition teams, telling us how the West is finally going to run the country. Good ways to sour a budding romance.

Or will a panicky Liberal war room push the mutually assured destruction button and start trying to bomb Tory bridges with negative advertising?

Remember 1993? That can backfire and make things a whole lot worse for yourself, just like it did to the Tories with those mean ads.

Or instead of going negative, will the Liberals suck it up and finally get their guy on track? There's always the old gambit of Liberals frightening New Democrats into voting Liberal to avoid a Conservative government. Some New Democrats are already thinking of doing just that. Hello, Buzz Hargrove.

But this time, other New Democrats might just vote Conservative to avoid more Liberal government. Poor Jack Layton, caught between the red devil and the deep blue sea. If someone names fast foods after this election, maybe there will be a new dish called the "Jack Sandwich."

Then there's Gilles. The more trouble there is in River City, the more life's just one great big Happy Meal for him.

Thurs., Dec. 22, 2005

For Quebecers watching this election, it feels like we already have two countries. We sure have two different campaigns – ; a deux nations election, you might say.

Outside Quebec, you have three main parties.

Inside Quebec, we have four.

Outside Quebec, you have no odds-on favourite – ; it's pretty much nose to nose between Liberals and Conservatives. Inside Quebec, French Quebec anyway, neither of those has a chance of winning… Ici c'est le Bloc.

Even in those rare moments when Quebecers see the campaign outside Quebec, it often seems to be all about their province. Or at least about that thing English Canadians call "national unity" – ; Quebecers call it the "national question."

Harper's English campaign slogan is "Stand Up for Canada." His French one doesn't mention Canada.

In fact, it means, "Let's have real change" … that could be taken a couple of ways.

When Harper comes to Quebec, he says things Quebecers like to hear – ; like special powers and international representation. Maybe he'll join Duceppe in promising Quebec its own Olympic hockey team!

It sure is a different Harper than the one Quebecers used to read about … in dispatches from faraway places like Toronto and Calgary – ; who thought Quebec already got too much special treatment, and more than its fair share of money from Ottawa. Which Harper is for real?

Meanwhile, Martin races around the country telling people that fighting separatists is in his DNA, meaning, I guess, those bad people for whom two-thirds of French Quebecers usuallly vote. Used to be that Martin would tell Quebecers he was the guy to make peace between nationalists and federalists. To prove it, he even made a separatist party founder his campaign chief. So, does he want to love sovereigntists, or fight them?

Seems like in English Canada, everyone wants the old gunslinger Trudeau, or "I love Canada" Chretien, always making a big deal of fighting the separatists. Meanwhile, in Quebec, the separatists just keep getting stronger and stronger. Anyway, with a country to save, here's betting the Christmas break will be short.

And Joyeux Noël to you, too!

Monday, Dec. 19, 2005

Ah, to be a Torontonian in Canada today … you understand what Rodney Dangerfield went on about with his old "I get no respect" schtick.

Everyone always says Torontonians run the country … that elections are all about the "Ontario battleground," that the 416 and 905 area codes rule the political roost.

Yadda yadda.

But just check the facts … when was the last time anyone from Toronto actually got to run the country? John Turner, that's who … except the minute he became prime minister, he deserted Toronto for a trendy Vancouver riding. And he only lasted a millisecond as PM anyway.

Before that, we had Lester Pearson … sort of.

He was born in Toronto, sure enough, but then off he went to England, the Suez, the United Nations. Got elected in some place called Algoma, then hauled off to Ottawa. He's buried in Quebec. Some Torontonian!

Anyway, Pearson was PM so long ago, the Leafs were winning Stanley Cups.

Today, there's Jack Layton. Actually born in Montreal, but came to Toronto to get himself elected deputy mayor. What's up with Jack anyway? How come he's not doing better?

People said he could be Canada's Tony Blair – ; a charismatic pragmatist who turned left-wing politics into mainstream politics. But folks don't cut Jack much slack. When Tony Blair pushed his party towards the middle, they said he was courageous. When Jack does the same thing, they say he's flip-flopping.

Layton did well in Parliament, everyone says … and came across OK in the leaders' debate. If everyone's so tired of Martin and unsure about Harper, how come Layton's not doing better?

Maybe he will in the second half of the election. Might be nice to see a Toronto lad actually get somewhere in politics, for a change. Anyway, even if Toronto gets no respect, it's still got the Broadcasting Centre. That's something.

Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005

In politics, the term "third rail" is used to describe a very few issues whose sky-high-voltage is akin to those dangerous electrified third rails which power subway trains.

The ones where the signs warn: Danger. Fatal if touched.

Among the subjects wary politicos view this way are seniors' pensions and health care.

And today, perhaps, in this campaign, Canada-U.S. relations.

So, Conservatives today, as they get within spitting distance of the Liberals, want to make sure they don't screw things up.

Americanism, pro or anti, has been tossed into this campaign… and it presents a tough choice for Conservatives. Do they run away from the U.S. issue, scared they could end up carrying a very unpopular monkey named George Bush on their backs, or do they challenge Martin for messing up U.S. relations?

In the Liberal camp, meanwhile, a different kind of fear exists… fear that the public's appetite for change, and Harper's steady campaigning, could defeat them.

And when Liberals get a little scared, mid-election, they reach for their toolkit of campaign fixes… such as demonizing someone.

Past Liberal campaigns made demons of Ralph Klein, Mike Harris, the premiers at large, the provinces, the separatists… anyone who was handy.

Nervous Nellies fret about how destructive this tactic is to long-term relations – ; but Big Boys see it as a small price to pay when Liberal victory is at stake.

And, so, we get to the Liberals making a campaign demon of George Bush, and raising the bogeyman of U.S. domination. And the Conservatives worrying about how to avoid both.

Monday, Dec. 12, 2005

The upcoming leaders' debates loom large over the election this week.

This is a fright-filled time for campaigners. Restless tour movements are suspended, buses and planes are parked. The leaders and their inner circles retreat into bunkers, with fake TV studios, where the nervous scripting and de-scripting of debate lines can take place in secret.

Paranoid campaign teams spend days prepping their leaders for these performances. The dream that their guy will delight and trumph with an unexpected line is juggled against the paralyzing fear that their guy could crater with an unexpected gaffe…

In the panic-prone environment of the inner core of most campaigns, fear outweighs greed, so risk avoidance and damage control carry the day.

Surprises, the leaders are schooled, must be avoided. Which is why these things can become so dull…

Speaking of surprises, a Sunday pundits' panel which should have been an irrelevant sideshow ballooned into a damaging glimpse into the problems bedevilling the prime ministership of one Right Honourable Paul Martin.

Yet again, Martin's overly warlike team got him into unnecessary trouble, this time with an ill-considered remark to the effect that, left to themselves, parents would spend child care money on beer and popcorn rather than looking after their kids.

Despite a hasty backtrack, the sideswipe shows the overly-partisan hubris which has long enveloped Martin and his inner staff. Instead of opposition politicians and journalists smarting from a back-handed smack, it is parents at large – ; voters you might call them – ; who get the treatment. Good move.

Even worse, that "Brother Knows Best" comment provides a welcome segue for opposition parties to get back into talking about that alleged Liberal "culture of entitlement and corruption," the thought that launched this campaign.

The thought that – ; should it ever prevail as a so-called "ballot question" – ; most deeply frightens the Liberal campaign.

Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005

For just a few days, brows HAD BEEN furrowed in the Liberal camp.
  • Was the radioactive fallout from Adscam proving toxic?
  • Was Stephen Harper finding his sea legs as leader and candidate?
  • Were scandal-weary, or Liberal-weary voters prepared to give him a second look?
  • Were Conservative policy proposals catching on with voters?
And, closer to Liberal hearts, deep down circulated a barely spoken concern: could Paul Martin – ; the 1990s hero-in-waiting – ; prove to be an electoral deadweight, more rock than rock star?

But in politics, an hour can be a long time. And, in the last couple of days, the inside mood swing has swung ever so slightly to the Liberals … at least around the inner core of their campaign, where the elusive PHASMA called "momentum" is routinely measured in nanobits, and panic attacks are the daily diet of campaigners.

So it is, at this point in Election 2006, that it's in the opposition camps that worry is on the increase. Are our campaign strategies working? If the answer IS yes, then why is the Liberal vote holding, perhaps even increasing?

Conservatives widely believe their leader and campaign got off to a good start – ; and yet, there is little or no sign of progress.

Are voters unprepared to look again at Harper?

For Conservatives, the strategic question is crucial: what explains the stillness in support – ; is it that even good yeast takes a while to rise? Or is this unleavened bread?

The first clue to who's losing an election campaign is usually found in who first turns to negative campaigning. Stay tuned.

Monday, Dec. 5, 2005

So here we go… week two… of election 2006

Naturally, the rah-rah troops in each party claim their guy won the kickoff week. But the quieter voices around campaign campfires accept that it was a good week for Stephen Harper.

It seemed to pay off for Harper to put the spotlight on some constructive ideas, instead of just campaigning through negative attacks, over corruption and scandal.

Going constructive, as they say, was overdue for Harper – ; a year of attack-dog politics has worsened the negativity and anger, issues he needs to work out with Canadian voters…

People might be thinking of tossing out the Grits in this election, but they're still wondering whether Harper has the temperament to be prime minister. Election '06 could turn on the question of whether or not Harper's "electrophobia" gets cured…

For his part, Martin had a so-so week – ; not as poor as some would have it, and it ended better than it began. That endorsement from Buzz Hargrove certainly made for good headlines and pictures.

Jack Layton took Buzz's self-promotion from NDP pain in the butt to NDP back-stabber like a man, given the blood gushing from the open back wound.

But experienced campaign types know that organized labour chiefs don't really control that many votes – ; and that images of Hargrove and Martin chumming it up in matching bowling jackets might help with some voters – ; but could also make others – ; such as Liberal-Tory switch-voters – ; more than a little queasy.

The Liberal campaign high command hasn't yet decided whether it's mainly fighting opponents on the right or opponents on the left. Better do that soon: those two-front wars can cost a lot of troops. Just ask Kim Campbell.

Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005

Interesting start…

A 56-day campaign is long.

There are going to be better and worse weeks for all parties and leaders.

And the voters seem intensely subject to mood swings.

For Paul Martin… his presentation this week ranged between wooden and excessively partisan. He's on thin ice with voters, bedevilled by disappointment with his yawning personal expectations gap and hauling around the millstone of a party in stench mode with voters.

He needs to persuade, not alienate.

Over on the other side, Harper is benefiting from a wind – ; let's just call it a breeze – ; of change. And he has a strong theme … opposing a Liberal "culture of entitlement and corruption."

And, at least in this opening week, Harper did not make the mistake of making his campaign just about attacking the others.

Instead, Harper was trying to control the agenda.

Each of the last three days, the main campaign stories were Harper-generated: same-sex marriage (for better or worse).

A new federal prosecutor to fight corruption. (Even if his deputy leader was caught off guard)

And today, a proposed GST reduction.

A tricky issue for the Liberals, given that their last known GST position was an Olympic back-flip on a promise to abolish the tax altogether.

With 53 days left, predictions are meaningless. Last campaign, remember, the Conservatives seemed to win the first half, the Liberals the second.

Harper seemed to suffer stamina or temperament challenges in the latter days. And Martin will no doubt have better weeks.

So it ain't over till it's over. One swallow doesn't make a spring. The fat lady's not even in the building. But in week one, this is not yet going the way the Liberals want.

Monday, Nov. 28, 2005

And so it begins, the truth is that the folks who work inside campaigns are no more certain how this is going to go than anyone else.

Behind all the bluster, I've never seen so much nervousness, fright almost. Sure, everyone repeats the standard lines: "This is going to turn out pretty much like the last one." "We're all trapped in an electoral repeat cycle, like those poor folks in that Groundhog Day movie a few years back." Yada, yada, yada. Pretty universally, voters seem to think it sends all the wrong messages to give the Liberals a free pass back into office.

If anyone ever looked like they needed a time-out, it's the Liberals. Good news for the opposition parties, you'd think. But that's about where the consensus stops. Apart from not liking the Libs, the opposition haven't given voters much reason to like them either, idea-wise or personality-wise. And so the voters feel like they've got a tough choice, between Mr. Disappointment on one side and Mr. Something-About-Him-We're-Not-Sure-About on the other side.

Within the two main parties, the strategists almost universally think the other guy's weakness is their best asset. So that points all the strategists toward negative campaigning. Make this all about the other guy's problems; don't let it be about you. Even though everyone knows on all sides that this is bad for all of us, a zero-sum game that in the end diminishes respect for all the leaders and parties, and for democratic institutions, as well. It's bad for the country.

The hail-Mary play in this election would be the opposite of that, the high road. A high-risk, high-reward campaign strategy that just might pay off with voters looking for some relief and reassurance that someone in Ottawa gets it.

Question is, can any of these parties find the high road from where they are today?


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