In the rush to predict the fate of our party leaders after this election, only one thing stands in the way of wise strategic counsel: everything and every day of the campaign.
There is no commentary that ages faster than a review of where the political parties in Canada stand on the eve of an election campaign. This week, a few Liberals have been tweeting out the Sun Media front page from the start of the 2015 campaign, with a photo of a glum Trudeau seemingly gazing into the abyss. The Sun papers ran that the Liberal party was in freefall and on a suicide mission. But the rumours of Liberal demise weren’t just coming from right of centre at the time. Jamey Heath, the former research and communications director for the NDP, wrote, in July of that year, in the National Post: “But what if the most remarkable thing about the election is yet to come? What if it’s the last election for the country’s erstwhile ‘natural governing party’ — the Liberal Party of Canada?” A decade before this Graham Fox, one of the sharpest policy minds in Canada, put forth a convincing – and eviscerating – argument for Stephen Harper to step down as the Leader of Fox’s party of choice. Just wait ‘till the morning after election day is the implicit warning message in these forecast pieces, based on the grim assessments of those attuned to the particular cultural histories of party dynamics.
But nothing follows the script in a campaign. Screenwriter William Goldman famously said about his craft: “nobody knows anything.” It’s a wise mantra for most party strategists. The plot points that emerge over five weeks of campaigning have a greater impact than months of platform crafting, messaging and issues management could prepare anyone for, no matter if you’re governing or in opposition.
And yet there’s something odd and new about this cultural moment, one no doubt influenced by the volatile, polarized and destabilized nature of party politics around the world. The core identities of parties are transforming rapidly – just ask a Blairite Labour or Romney-era Republican party foot soldier. The infusion of populism – that no party is completely immune from – has worked like a dangerous steroid on the importance of the leader’s charisma, inflating it beyond all sober assessment. How else to explain that there is only one thing for certain after all the votes are counted in October: each leader that does not bring his party to power will likely be facing a leadership review. The three-party leaders who stand the best chance of escaping this fate – Trudeau, May and Bernier – have so personified their parties’ brand identities that any such review would put each party in crisis, an apres-moi-le-deluge scenario that does not speak well about any efforts to counter centralization of power in a party structure right now.
A glimpse of charisma during the campaign could also be more of a game-changer than ever before. And that should make each party leader more hopeful about their ability to surprise and repel any night of the long knives. The dream-video clip can focus the minds of those party staffers in the room with the boss for debate prep. A star moment can be crafted, just ask anyone working with Brian Mulroney before his “you had a choice, sir” moment in the 1984 campaign debate with John Turner. For those party leaders left out of the debates, they will have to find a masterstroke on a broader canvas, but the moment can still become a reality in the boldest primary colours. And it’s possible, more than ever, given the viral circulation of such moments on social media, to rapidly transform a party’s fortunes. Once momentum is created, as any pollster can tell you, it’s a very difficult thing to slow down, never mind stop, with a suddenly attentive electorate, trawling the shallows on Twitter.
This all might be bad news for the party stalwarts who put great importance on the campaign platform, who care less about the stagecraft and the timbre of the leader’s voice than the timber in the party structure. It might incidentally not be great for democracy, but hey, neither is a decimated media landscape but here we are – and willfully so, it seems. What it does mean is that the nature of leadership within parties, just like the nature of parties themselves, might emerge as the real story behind the story of the election.