There are many old sayings that go with politics and campaigns. These truisms come from hard learned experience and sometimes it amazes me just how true they continue to be over time, regardless of the changing situations. One of the truest of those old axioms is that “Campaigns Matter”. Time and again we see examples of this, where a party either comes out of nowhere to a big result or a front runner who goes into a campaign seemingly guaranteed of a big win collapses and blows it. History is littered with examples of this.

Going into this campaign everyone keeps pointing to that of saying, which is pretty wise. A year ago the Liberals seemed to be cruising to another majority government and it seemed that the Opposition couldn’t put a hand on them. Yet here we are in 2019 and it’s a dead heat. It’s a competitive race and that opens that box of “campaigns mattering” all the wider. So it  was with that in mind that I saw this piece of news come out from La Presse, news that just screamed just how much campaigns do matter:

Folks, this isn’t the first time that I raised this issue here, as I wrote about the rumours that Justin Trudeau wouldn’t appear at these other debates last week. At the time, I wrote about it because as juicy a rumour it was, it made no sense for that to actually happen. Ducking a debate is so against this leader’s brand in so many ways and is one that is so very hard to explain away. Adding to this appearance is Justin Trudeau’s own history when it comes to comments about others ducking debates. Remember this one from the last campaign?

Yep, that’s a screen shot of Justin Trudeau chiding Thomas Mulcair for musing about ducking a debate. For Trudeau, that approach made sense at the time, as he was trying to climb out of third place and was trying to show himself as doing politics differently. In fact, so much of his campaign and the winning message that he put out there was about being different. Remember “Real Change”? Part of that change involved not ducking debates and trying to avoid having to answer for one’s record, which is something that the Conservatives made a point of doing during those years under Stephen Harper. But now? What’s changed here?

There’s an exercise that I’ve found myself going to over the past couple of years, that I’ve found to be a helpful guide to how to react to certain things; I call it the “What if Harper did this?” exercise. It’s simple, all you do is ask yourself how you would have reacted if Stephen Harper had done what Justin Trudeau just did. If the answer to that bit of self-reflection is some variation on anger, disappointment or outrage, that should tell you something. The confirmation that Justin Trudeau is now going to duck out of three debates is surely a great example to use this exercise for, because Stephen Harper did just that in the last campaign.  We know how the Liberals and many Canadians rightfully reacted to that episode.

We should also remember how that cancellation also helped to contribute to the defeat of the Conservatives in that campaign, along with other campaign mistakes. The fact is that not showing up to that debate helped to further build and reinforce a narrative about Stephen Harper and fed the desire for change to coalesce around one choice. The Liberals seem to be betting that it’s a safer bet to duck those debates, but that could be a fatal mistake. Not only are there issues that Canadians want to hear an answer from the Prime Minister on, it looks very odd to see him not want to debate these other leaders, particularly the NDP and Greens. There isn’t anyone who will be on that stage who is known to be an amazing orator; they aren’t bad, but there isn’t one who you would put on your Mount Rushmore of speech givers. And given Trudeau’s relative strengths around oral communication, you’d think that he’d jump at the chance to debate these leaders. Instead, he’s pulling the old Sir Robin, which again looks bad.

The final piece of this that I find amazing is that right now despite everything that’s happened in 2019, the Liberals are still in a good spot to win again. The Conservatives are sputtering and dealing with issues around social conservative issues, the rise of the Greens seems to have petered out and the New Democrats are in the worst position they’ve been in for close to 20 years. That first debate next week, the first of which the PM is going to skip, could be a huge chance to put this campaign completely out of reach. A good debate performance could end the NDP campaign and mortally wound the Greens, leaving a one-on-one fight with the Conservatives that the Liberals want.

That’s a big upside with relatively little risk. But instead of taking that opportunity, he’s going to not show up, have the debate go on and give all of these other parties two hours of nationally broadcast TV time to resuscitate their campaigns and chances, all while pointing to Mr. Trudeau’s absence as a glaring negative about his term and government. Not showing up would be the equivalent of the Liberals taking their feet off of the collective necks of the other progressive parties and giving all the other parties a free platform to bat him around. What is the upside in that, unless you think that his performance would be worse than no showing up at all?

Some will paint this decision by the Liberals as being extra cautious, while others will use much more colourful language to describe the opposite. But in my view, this is a serious mistake, one that could take on a life of its own and from which there is no backing down without sustaining damage. The only way to avoid that now would be to reserve course ASAP and show up next Thursday, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point. It’s decisions like these, which seem like they could be small, that show us why campaigns continue to matter. This is no longer rumour or urban legend; this seems to be the decision. We’ll see how it plays out but if history has taught us anything, making moves like these rarely go as well as they are thought to.

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