Canada’s left importing U.S. campaign tactics

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Nine years ago this month, U.S. Republicans were rolling. George W. Bush had just been re-elected and the party was boasting of a permanent Republican majority in the United States.

Jeremy Bird, who had worked on John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign, remembers the Democrat despair that November.

There was no one left to blame but themselves, he said.

“It woke up the progressive movement in the country.’’

Bird, a political organizer and voter data analyst and the 2012 field director of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, is a man much in demand today for his work in the hybrid merging of community organizing and data mining.

As we spoke, Bird was in Toronto, working with Canadian progressives who feel their wake-up call is at hand.

Two years after the left began an institute of its own, named after longtime NDP leader Ed Broadbent, their members are learning how to tell their story and change the deeply embedded conservative narrative in this country. They have begun programs to properly train and indoctrinate campaign volunteers, strategists and candidates.

They are importing veterans of back-to-back Obama victories to help them learn how to do it, but, unlike Democrats in the U.S., they began their efforts while in the ascendancy, after the NDP formed the official opposition for the first time, albeit in a Stephen Harper majority government.

More than just importing the players, however, Canadians are now seeing the importation of a key element of American political culture.

Whether sustaining one political view through a changing political terrain is possible is questionable — Obama has sunk to new lows in popularity, while Bird is already working on the undeclared candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Whether it can work here, where at least two centre-left parties compete for votes, is an open question.

The back-to-back Bush victories helped give birth to the Centre for American Progress, the first large, left-leaning American think tank and advocacy group, born to counter the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which had successfully promoted the Republican message.

Here, the Broadbent Institute seeks to do battle with the Calgary-based Manning Centre, named for its founder, former Reform party leader Preston Manning.

Manning’s institute is older, richer, more deeply entrenched and more influential. It includes a new training centre for conservatives who are schooled in the art of campaigning, political messaging and political management.

Its annual conference is the most important conservative gathering on the year’s political calendar, but a month after next year’s event, the Broadbent Institute will counter with their own Progressive Summit, featuring former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Last Thursday, the inaugural Broadbent Progressive Gala sold out at the Art Gallery of Ontario where attendees heard from another Obama alumnus, Robert Gibbs, the president’s former communications guru.

By video, attendees heard from former prime ministers Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, who stressed the need for big ideas to be debated in this country.

In two years, the Broadbent Institute now has a staff of 10, double the Twitter following of the Manning Centre and a 700 per cent jump in traffic on its website in the past year.

Its blog site is modeled after The Progress Report, the newsletter of the Centre for American Progress.

The money donated by benefactors and sponsors for right-leaning advocacy in this country through the Manning Centre and the Fraser Institute and others is likely 10 times that available to progressives such as the Broadbent Institute, trade union political arms or environmental groups.

It is why messages revolving around law and order, balanced budgets, low taxes and family values become embedded in the Canadian political jargon.

The challenge is for progressives to make protection of our public health care system, income inequality, environmental safeguards, the green economy, democratic renewal and protection of the CBC just as much of the daily political discourse.

“You have to arm everyday citizens with a message,’’ Gibbs said. “It is not just happening in the public square and on TV or newspapers. It happens in everyday life.

“You need an army of truth tellers out there, spreading the word.’’

And for those who have been out of power, Gibbs stresses that you “have to tell your story, not just why you are opposed to something.’’

Beyond the battle of big ideas, however, expect an NDP that increasingly plays with its elbows up, creates an enduring “war room’’ mentality and is not shy about engaging opponents.