Left to right: Gerald Butts, David Axelrod, Justin Trudeau. Photo: Liberal Party of Canada

The gleaming new Halifax Convention Centre — subsidized by federal, provincial, and municipal taxpayers like you and me — was festooned with red Liberal banners all weekend, with the ubiquitous slogan “Hope and Hard Work” splashed on screens throughout the super-sized conference room.

The 2,800 federal Liberal party members came to Halifax to brainstorm ideas for the next election (and, as tradition requires, to party). So, voters, don’t be surprised if you see a variation on the “Hope and Hard Work” message during the fall 2019 campaign. Without Stephen Harper to kick around, the Trudeau Liberals know that “Time For Change” won’t cut it the next time, especially if they have unkept promises regarding pharmacare and a solid plan to tackle climate change.

The Prime Minister and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau sat beaming from the front row on Friday evening — Justin having literally just touched down from a week of meetings in Europe.

The session could have been called “Ask An Expert” about how to build a winning strategy for electoral success. The PM’s senior advisor and friend, Nova Scotian Gerry Butts, took the stage in the role of interviewer. Butt’s guest was David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior advisor for eight years, and a frequent CNN commentator. Both bespectacled white guys could easily have been taken for college professors who’d wandered onto the stage in their rumpled suits and shirts with no ties.

The similarities and connections went beyond sartorial choices. Gerry Butts is Trudeau’s BFF from their McGill University days; David Axelrod was a Chicago Tribune reporter who got to know Obama long before the young community organizer moved into the White House.

Butts is the son of a Glace Bay coal miner who studied English literature before earning his political chops working for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. That’s where Butts first hooked up with Axelrod. Butts told the crowd he phoned Axelrod to ask for advice on whether to go ahead with a negative campaign that featured attack ads on McGuinty’s rival.

“Your advice was, ‘You don’t have to do politics that way,’ recalled 46-year-old Butts, “that you can win with concrete measures and a positive message. And that’s essentially how we won federally in 2015.”

“Every campaign at its best,” added Axelrod, “is built around an authentic person whom people believe might be able to help them. I think with Obama and Trudeau we feel a kinship at being part of a positive movement.”

The challenge, as Butts is learning (and Axelrod knows from helping elect and re-elect President Obama) is how to persuade increasingly fickle voters their party deserves a second chance to govern.

Much of it has to do with which message gets communicated. Both advisors discussed the importance of making and sticking with long-term goals, and not being distracted by problems that emerge and then churn through too many news cycles — in Trudeau’s case, the impasse involving the TransMountain pipeline or the gaffes during his recent trip to India come to mind.

“The BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico became a huge issue for us,” recalls Axelrod. “There was a sense it was a referendum on the government. We solved it in 2012 and it didn’t come up once in the runup to election day. You just have to play through it — you have to know who you are.”

Both Axelrod and Butts share a fierce loyalty and affection for their leaders, grounded in sharing the same goals — whether introducing a version of Medicare to the United States, or gender equity and reconciliation with First Nations in Canada.

“I had an aunt who taught me how to read,” said Butts, a reference to Sister Peggy Butts, the activist nun who was eventually appointed to the Senate. “She said there were two kinds of people: people who want to be something and people who want to do something. Well, it’s the people who want to do something who need to be supported and defended.”

In that same vein, Axelrod described an emotional moment while working in the White House. Polling showed the President’s approval ridings were doomed to go down if he pushed forward with the Affordable Health Act known as Obamacare. Despite opposition from his own party, Obama persisted. The night the Bill passed, it was Axelrod who found himself crying. “Partly because I have a son who has epilepsy, and after 18 years on a reporter’s salary, we almost went bankrupt,” he recalled. “I went to find the president to thank him on behalf of other families who wouldn’t have to go through the same thing, and all he said was: ‘That’s why we do the work’. “

In an otherwise orchestrated event, the politically savvy Axelrod then turned slightly away from his interviewer to face the Liberal flock and reinforce the key word for the next year-and-a-half of their lives. “Don’t let’s forget why we do the work,” he said, which sparked a round of spontaneous applause. Talk about “working” a crowd.

Liberals and journalists who came to the session hoping to hear what Trudeau’s senior adviser might be thinking or plotting for the path ahead didn’t learn much. Insight-bearing war stories about the Dark Arts of campaigning didn’t surface. In his role as interviewer, Gerry Butts got to ask questions rather than answer them.

Axelrod went on to say if there was any disappointment during Obama’s first two years in government it was “the failure to tell the larger story of what we were about and where we were going.” It can’t be a series of disjointed press releases, he warned, and when Gerry Butts point blank asked the Democratic pundit for his “best advice” for the Liberals, he got a practical, bread-and-butter response.

“Your policies that cut taxes and that expanded child-care are strengthening the middle class and family during a period of technological change,” said Axelrod. “They may have yet to transform people’s lives because you have many pages to turn before completing your project. But they are meaningful, and people won’t know that unless you tell them.”

Butts asked his mentor how the use of social media has changed democracy, noting both the Liberals and Democrats have used platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to “facilitate conversations” and “engage” with voters who may or may not be committed to their party. Axelrod’s reply would have reassured partisan traditionalists.

“It’s not a substitute for shoe leather, going door-to-door, as your party has been doing,” he said. “There are nefarious applications of social media we have to be alert for, as we found out through the Russians. Social media can be used to mine resentments. Election campaigns must expose this and make sure people know it is happening and [that] it’s dangerous.”

Asked who would win the mid-term elections in the US, Axelrod hedged but said “women would be very important,” and “I don’t know if there is any limit on what Donald Trump would do to win.” The pundit noted POTUS probably wouldn’t like the fact it took 38 minutes before his name was mentioned.

The session wound up with some standard political hokum. Butts presented a Montreal Expos ballcap to Axelrod, a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan whose team won the World Series last year after decades of drought. Politics, like baseball, is a long game. Axelrod, true to form, thanked the Canadian policy advisor for the symbolic gesture, but said he wouldn’t wear the hat of another team.

As the crowd cheered, the Liberal Prime Minister jumped onstage to thank Axelrod, shaking his hand, before moving to embrace Butts in a quick hug. Unlike the nearly unmentioned Trump, who reportedly has had to corner subordinates and demand that they pledge loyalty, Trudeau and Obama obviously knew whom they could count on for the long haul.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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