OTTAWA – At a get-together here over the weekend, Barack Obama’s fabled spokesman guy, Robert Gibbs popped by.
When Gibbs spoke, the room went quiet, like it did in that old commercial where people lean in to hear advice from some financial advisor. You could hear a proverbial pin drop.
Gibbs was Obama’s White House voice from 2009 to 2011 – and, before that, he was one part of the triumvirate that helped the Chicago Senator win the presidency. He’s smart, among other things.
He’s asked about the Democrat’s chances in 2016, after eight years in the White House.
“It’s hard,” he says. “After eight years, after that much time, you’re in a change cycle. And change is a powerful theme.”
Indeed it is: Brian Mulroney rode it to a huge victory in 1984. Jean Chretien did likewise in 1993. Bill Clinton in ’92, George W. Bush in 2000. And Stephen Harper won with change, too, in 2006. But the people gave him a minority first, to ensure that his desired changes weren’t too radical.
Year 2014 is another change year. Harper has been there for almost a decade. In provinces like Ontario, provincial Liberals have been in power for more than a decade, and they look it.
Challengers in change cycles need to embody new, to be sure. But as Gibbs says, the “change” candidate needs to represent a clear alternative.
So, in 2008, Hilary Clinton had supported the Iraq war. Barack Obama didn’t. Apart from that one critical difference, their policy differences were mostly miniscule.
It isn’t enough, however, for the change candidate to merely say that being the first black president – or the first female president, or the first openly-gay Premier – is the change on offer. The change has to represent a risk.
Justin Trudeau takes risks. In the year and a bit since he became Liberal leader, in fact, Trudeau has taken plenty of risks.
Pot and pipelines. Open nominations that aren’t open. Ukraine jokes. Admiring dictatorships. And, last week, saying he won’t let his caucus to vote their consciences anymore.
By the usual standards, Trudeau should be politically dead. And the mistakes enumerated above – which, coincidentally enough, form the basis of a series of Conservative attack ads – should have ended his ambitions, long ago.
But he remains standing and strong. Forty plus polls have been taken since he became federal Liberal leader – and he has led in almost every one.
Why? It’s possible, perhaps, that the Con ads are serving Trudeau’s purposes. That is, by endlessly reminding voters that Trudeau represents radical change, they also remind Canadians that Trudeau – really, truly – is a real change.
They may even agree that he is radical change. But they are prepared to accept the radical stuff – the risks – in exchange for true change.
Trudeau, clearly, doesn’t intend to change his change-y ways. He’s out there on the tightrope, and he kind of likes the view.
Harper and Tom Mulcair, meanwhile, are down below, watching the Liberal leader do things they never would. They’ll never say it out loud, of course, but their entire strategy seems to revolve around waiting for Justin Trudeau to hit terra firma.
As strategies go, it’s not much of one.