This Week in Electionland: In which I reluctantly conclude that Trudeau might win

At the outset of this interminable election campaign, I figured that ultimately, it would boil down to a struggle between a weak and unprincipled Liberal Party and a strong and unprincipled NDP, with the HarperCons holding on to their core base of voters and not much more. In my estimation, it seemed likely that the NDP, with their lead in the polls and their more clear-cut and understandable position on major issues like Bill C-51, would win the battle for the Anybody But Conservative vote.

Another key part of this calculation was my assessment that the Liberal Party was essentially dead, a shell of the juggernaut it once was. Running their fourth leader in as many elections, a man elevated to the party leadership mostly for his boyish good looks and family connections; four years out from their worst electoral showing ever; lagging languidly in third place in the polls for months leading up to the election, while Thomas Mulcair and the NDP enjoyed all the media advantages of being the biggest challenger to continued Conservative rule – there were innumerable reasons to figure the Liberals were toast. The self-defined centre of the political spectrum, Canada’s “natural governing party”, looked likely to fall victim to an increasingly partisan style of politics.

And good riddance, I thought! The last thing we need is more of the party that brought us, for instance, the punishing and completely needless austerity of the 90s, the party which has long been a magnet for the vast majority of unprincipled power-hungry sociopaths in Canadian politics, the party which is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to making lofty campaign promises and then completely forgetting about them the day after being elected.

(Not that I held out high hopes for the NDP, but I hoped that at a minimum an NDP government would, through its failures and disappointments, help demonstrate to progressive Canadians that our political system is fundamentally broken and in need of radical change.)

But now here we are, a month away from the big day, and what do we see? A resurgent Liberal Party, and a three-way tie in the polls? Hell, the Libs have even led a couple of polls at this point – all well within the margin of error, but still.

The explanation for this surprising turnaround lies in the campaign that the Liberal brain trust has run. With the NDP playing to the centre in an effort to be the party that all the “strategic voters” went for, the Libs sensed an opportunity on the (just barely) left of centre, and they pounced on it. Parliamentary record be damned – most voters don’t keep track of petty matters like that! And so while Mulcair contorts himself trying to explain how he’ll provide help to “working families” via affordable, quality $15-a-day childcare, eventually, while balancing the budget, and keeping taxes low, and helping out small businesses, because lord knows we all love small businesses, and did he mention affordable, quality $15-a-day childcare yet?, Trudeau took for himself the simple narrative. He’ll “invest in Canada’s future”. He’ll raise taxes on “the top 1%”, because who likes them? He’ll bring “real change” to Ottawa.

I watched a Liberal rally in Newfoundland earlier today, and he has it boiled down to a simple repetitive slogan: “The Conservatives won’t bring change, and the NDP can’t bring change, but the Liberal Party will bring change!” To which the partisan crowd, naturally, went friggin’ nuts. Those who don’t learn from history…

This was the narrative he brought to the “debate” stage this past Thursday, and its simplicity served him well in the event’s frantic format. While Mulcair struggled to articulate the nuances of his position, Trudeau was able to clearly showcase his vague vision. I lost count of how many times he said he’d “invest in Canada’s future”. It was enough times to inoculate him against being painted as advocating needless deficit spending by anybody who doesn’t live in the Conservative spin machine, anyway.

And love it or hate it (I personally hate it), elections are often won on the basis of simple, intuitive narratives. Barack Obama was a first-term Senator with not much of a record to speak of who got catapulted to the Presidency largely on the basis of charisma, a compelling personal narrative, and two slogans: “Hope” and “Change You Can Believe In”. Both of these, it should be noted, are so totally vague as to be meaningless – which is part of their appeal. In this sense, Trudeau’s “invest in Canada’s future” and “bring real change to Ottawa” are a key component of an identical strategy. They’re general sentiments with which anybody can agree, and so therefore people can easily project their own hopes and their own visions of change onto the candidate, who is conveniently devoid of specifics as to what exactly they mean by these slogans. Look no further than the tightly packed rallies that Trudeau speaks to; in the background, you’ll see folks holding up red signs with white words reading “Leader” and “Plan” – mere gestures in the direction of substance, but subliminally successful.

Oh, to be sure, Trudeau has gone into some detail about the types of infrastructure investments he hopes to make, and has laid out specific numbers for deficit spending, but I think at this point even the most naive voters know that there’s only a vague symbolic relationship between a party’s campaign platform and their actual program once in government. It’s the sentiment that counts in these sorts of pronouncements, and Trudeau is communicating his sentiment remarkably well. (He may not be a real politician, but he sure knows how to play one on TV!)

This may explain Mulcair’s jolt to the left policy-wise the day after the debate. Speaking in Regina, Mulcair announced a stunning new platform for the NDP – a national pharmacare program. The announcement was met with immediate skepticism by the political press, mostly because the amount of money the party was offering up and the amount needed to meaningfully address the issue are miles apart.

Global was so skeptical, they put it in their headline: Mulcair announces universal pharmacare program – how will he pay for it?

It isn’t clear yet what would be covered or how the numbers work out, but the party has committed $2.6 billion over four years. Even if a streamlined national coverage plan reduces Canada’s drug costs significantly, it will likely cost the government much more than that…

While 36 per cent of prescription drug costs are now covered by private plans, Canadians pay $6 billion a year in out-of-pocket prescription drugs.

It isn’t clear how the NDP’s pledge of $2.6 billion would cover this gap, especially given that a universal publicly funded pharmacare program would eliminate the need (and incentive) for private plans.

Which is not to piss on the idea of national coverage for prescription medication. I think that’d be great. I also think the NDP hasn’t got an iota of credibility on this. Launching such a major platform with such a piddling dollar amount attached this late in the campaign smacks of desperation, an urgent desire to somehow differentiate themselves from the Liberals and pull out of this intense three-way tie. And, as Trudeau’s relentless jabs accurately point out, it’s hard to see how the NDP can bring about a change like this while remaining committed to “balancing Stephen Harper’s budget”.

I think it speaks to how desperate folks in this country are for some drastic changes to the way we do politics that some of them are willing to believe that the wealthy privileged son of one of the most power-hungry Prime Ministers this country has ever known running as the leader of the same Liberal Party that’s led Canada for most of its history is the guy to make those changes happen.

Trudeau does everything he can to encourage that image. He’ll weaken the power of the Prime Minister’s office, he assures us. He’ll grow the economy from the heart out – and make all the Care Bear jokes you want, I think that line connected with a lot of older voters. He’ll put an end to all this F-35 fighter jet nonsense (and put the money he saves into the motley collection of rust buckets we call a Navy instead).

But mostly what Trudeau is talking about these days is Change. Change and Leadership and the Middle Class. Just check out this ad the Liberal Party recently released entitled “Real Leadership” [warning: this ad contains Bill Blair]:

Did your eyes glaze over a little? Did you lose the plot? If so, here’s a handy transcript:

Everywhere I go in this country, people tell me they want change. But they’re fed up with closed, secretive government. True leadership is inspiring the strongest people from all across this country to come together to put a new plan in place – real change for our middle class. Ten years of an economy going nowhere under Harper has shown us that our economy simply won’t grow without a strong middle class. Mulcair offers no real new ideas for our economy. As part of our plan, the wealthiest 1% will pay more tax, so we can cut taxes for our middle class. It’s leadership. Leadership. Leadership that works not just for the wealthiest few, but for all Canadians. That’s why I’m with Justin Trudeau. I’m with Justin Trudeau. Je suis a Justin Trudeau. We’re with Trudeau. Team Trudeau. That’s why I’m with Trudeau.

It’s a simple formula. Repetition is remarkably effective. You probably noticed the super-repetition of leadership, leadership, leadership – but did you notice that the middle class was mentioned three times in four sentences? Or that it’s “our” middle class, “our” economy?

Seen written down, glaring flaws in the composition also become evident. Note the abrupt and incoherent transition between complaining about Harper’s “closed, secretive government” to celebrating the Liberal’s plan for “real change for our middle class”. Also, the line about Mulcair looks like it was a late addition to the script – take it out and the following line works much better. Overall, it has all the readability of a Terms of Service Agreement – but when we watch the video, these details escape our notice entirely.

It’s typical of political ads that they don’t really make a strong logical case for their candidates, but rather try to appeal to potential voters in much the same way deodorants and tampons try to appeal to potential customers – subliminally. And this ad is certainly no exception to that rule. It therefore provides us with a window into how the Liberal Party wants us to think about the Liberal Party, the story or narrative they’re trying to sell – in fact, that story is clear as day. Trudeau is a strong leader with a plan to help the our middle class grow.

To be clear, I’m terrified by the idea that this timid little narrative could propel the Liberal Party to victory. But as the NDP remains stuck at 30% due to its inexplicable (and predictable) self-sabotage, and as the Harper campaign continues to be totally unappealing to anybody who didn’t already like the guy, I think there’s a pretty good chance at this point that the Liberal Party could start to see their standing in the polls increase.

Hell, there’s even a chance they could win this thing.

Didn’t think I’d be saying that at this stage in the game.

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