Biden is the man to lead a divided government and country

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 8, 2020.

On Friday afternoon, it looked increasingly likely that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would secure the 270 electoral votes needed to earn the title of president-elect. It also became clear he wouldn’t be given the tools to drive sweeping change anywhere other than at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

True, Biden has probably sent Trump packing from the White House, but the same cannot be said for their respective parties.

As things stood on Friday, the Democrats failed miserably in their attempts to dispatch Republicans from other branches and orders of government. The Republicans held the Senate. Gained five seats in the House. Held five and flipped one statehouse. And Trump increased his own raw vote by nearly seven million votes.

The result? Mitch McConnell and other congressional Republicans will argue that Joe Biden has no mandate from the American people; that he has no right to move the country in a different direction. However, they are wrong — Biden did earn a personal mandate.

Biden secured the support of some 74 million Americans. And he did it without stoking the politics of division and anger that have come to define politics across the United States.

True, millions of voters endorsed Donald Trump’s vision of America. But the clear message from the suburban voters, among other groups, was a loud rebuke of Trump’s four years in office.

Although Trump and his party will try desperately to undermine the legitimacy of Biden’s win and the legitimacy of their own political system along the way, the writing is on the wall. Come rain or shine, Joe Biden will most likely be sworn into office on January 20, 2021 alongside a Democratic house majority and a Senate whose balance of power will be decided in two January run-off elections.

But what will Biden be able to achieve, assuming he becomes president? Well, if Senator Mitch McConnell is to be believed, very little. Sources close to McConnell have signalled that the majority leader intends to restrict Biden’s independence in selecting his cabinet. Never mind the fact that presidents are generally given wide leeway in choosing their team — it is shameful that McConnell could not even wait for the final results before stirring up exactly the divisive obstructionism that is his calling card.

McConnell’s comments highlight the emerging dynamic that will define Biden’s potential presidency: the impossible task of uniting a country while leading a divided government. As if his task was not already challenging enough, this reality will seriously frustrate Biden’s ability to unite its progressive and moderate wings and deliver for his party.

Unless Biden can take decisive action on issues like climate change and racial justice, progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders will resist attempts to bring them into the fold. Without their support, it’s hard to see how the president-elect can protect his moderate allies in the Democratic leadership. As it is, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are vulnerable to a leadership challenge and, in Schumer’s case, a 2022 primary challenge from oh, say, a popular, young, progressive congresswoman from Queens.

Mending those divisions will not be an easy task. But in a peculiar way, Biden is uniquely — perhaps singularly — suited to the job. He served 37 years in the Senate, plus another eight years as Senate president while Obama’s VP. He knows not only McConnell, but moderate Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, whose support he will need to achieve policy wins.

More importantly, Biden is determined to govern. Unlike Trump, whose four years in the presidency constituted a rolling, never-ending political campaign, Biden has a platform for his term. He has a determination to remind Americans that politics is about policy, not polls. He has ideas for rebuilding the nation and for improving lives in states — both blue and red — across the country.

And most importantly, the way things currently look he will have a personal mandate, one underpinned by the largest popular vote in American history and the first rout of an incumbent president since 1992.

So, we’ll have to wait to hear from Republican leaders and final vote tallies to know more about the fate of Biden’s policy objectives. But for now, the only thing they should be saying is, “congratulations, Mr. President-elect.”

What a relief that would be.

 

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Trump did not invent the ‘imperial presidency,’ but he has debased it

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 1, 2020.

Lately I have been reminded of a conversation I had with myself, around this time back in 2016. Perhaps, I thought, Donald Trump would prove so ill-suited to the job of president and the task of governing that effectively nothing would be accomplished on his watch. Maybe — apart from four years of squandered potential — no permanent damage would be done; we could hope that all might return to normal.

Wow, was I wrong. In Tuesday’s genuinely pivotal election, Trump may or may not be given a second term (another lesson of 2016: predictions are a mug’s game and you’ll find none in this column.) But whether he stays or goes, he has changed the institution of the presidency itself — to say nothing of Congress, the Republican Party, the media, or any of the other, adjacent institutions whose presences were intended to act as checks and balances.

With the benefit of hindsight, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this would happen when Trump assumed the mantle of the “imperial presidency,” to borrow a phrase from the “historian of power” Arthur Schlesinger.

The imperial presidency is a perfect description of the office that Trump inherited, because the president is not only the elected leader of the nation and the head of government, but also the head of state.

This is the reason, for instance, that President Woodrow Wilson (as the only head of state present) had a higher chair than the Allied prime ministers at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

At home, Americans have long held a reverential view of the officeholder. They rise when he enters the room; they serenade him with “Hail to the Chief” and interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to bring breaking news of his every utterance.

Since the accession of President Trump, the other major institutions of American political life have struggled in response to the rot he has brought to the top. The Republican Party, for example, has opted for near-complete capitulation. At its convention, the Grand Old Party put forward no platform whatsoever. Oh, except for one promise: continued fealty to Donald Trump.

Sadly, there are no more mavericks in the senatorial caucus. Those that are left trip over each other in a mad scramble to win favour from the leader, which undermines any possibility of real, independent congressional oversight.

Most of the mainstream media, on the other hand, have chosen the path of moral reckoning. After granting candidate Trump nearly unlimited airtime in 2016 by carrying his rallies live, the fourth estate has course-corrected. It is no longer a given that cable news will carry a presidential rally or Rose Garden ceremony live. The old journalistic commitment to both-sides-ism has given way to outlets with explicitly partisan views. And through these partisan lenses has emerged a sudden vogue for “fact-checking” and “news analysis.”

In the span of a single term, Trump has so debased the institution of the presidency, it is now an open question whether it might ever be restored to its former place in American society.

Is it a task for Joe Biden in a “Jimmy Carter post-Watergate” sort of way? Will it take just one term to forget how bad things were and return to so-called normal?

Trump, after all, was not the first Imperial President. He has merely been the worst. But, in fairness, he is part of a line of succession which makes it safe to assume that worse still will follow him. With each new power assumed by his predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike, the stakes were raised higher and higher, until a cataclysmic event like Trump was inevitable.

Thinking back to that day four years ago and breaking my own rule against predictions, perhaps Americans will finally see the dangers of concentrating too much power in a single executive officeholder. If there is a silver lining to the otherwise disastrous Trump presidency, it may be this realization.

If so, it is one we Canadians could certainly understand. Because no matter how much power might accrue in the Prime Minister’s Office, ultimately, we have a different system — one that deliberately separates the head of state from the head of government, and whose checks and balances seem very much alive and well, if the past week in Parliament is any indication.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

A Woman’s Place is in the House (of Commons)

Monday’s by-elections achieved a significant milestone – it will be the first time in history that Canada will have 100 female Members of Parliament elected to the House of Commons.

Although this is grounds for celebration, there is still much work to do.

Old political wisdom would say that the reason women are not running for office is because they have kids, or because Ottawa is too far away. The real reason for the lack of women is due to years of systemic gender bias which has disproportionately benefited men while restraining the participation of women in electoral politics. This can be seen through a party’s willingness to select and support female candidates, and through significant financial barriers.

A key hurdle that women have faced for generations is that parties are still not putting forward enough female candidates, which leads to the lack of women being nominated. It has been proven that once nominated, women tend to win elections at similar rates to men. Clearly then, the issue is not with the electorate, but with the parties themselves.

However, once nominated, women are more likely than men to find themselves running in hard to win ridings instead of in party strongholds. This creates the unfortunate cycle of men who have been elected to continue to run again and again – which actively shrinks spaces for women. This leads to a lack of representation and off puts other women from running as they believe these spaces do not belong to them.

Finally, financial restraints are another key reason for the lack of elected women. The CBC found that women received less money from their party and riding associations to fund their campaign than men. On average, across all parties, women received $35,838 in campaign funds compared to $40,162 for men. This is coupled with the perception of socioeconomic gender gaps that women do not have as many large donors and may not be as comfortable in asking for money.

The gender imbalance in Canada has become more apparent over time, but changes are in place throughout party positions and policy. Justin Trudeau committed to maintaining a gender balanced Cabinet, implemented the use of Gender Based Analysis in federal budgets, and started the Invite Her to Run initiative to encourage women to run. This shift was also on display in the Conservative party in the most recent federal election where they fielded more women candidates than ever before.

100 women in the House of Commons is worthy of celebration but we must remember that with 238 male Members of Parliament, that it only represents 30%. We can and must do better.

Next year will mark 100 years since the first woman was elected to the House of Commons and with a potential election on the horizon, here’s hoping that records continue to be broken.

 

Nivitha Jeyakumar is a Consultant at Ensight Canada.

After an unseasonably cooperative summer, the chill of realpolitik is setting in

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 25, 2020.

As the warmth of summer has faded and the chill of fall set in, we have felt a similar change in temperature in legislatures across Canada.

From the House of Commons to Queen’s Park to the Alberta Legislative Assembly and the Quebec National Assembly. From provincial capitals to city halls, the tone of pandemic politics has shifted significantly. After seven months of relatively cordial, pragmatic and cooperative policy making, it seems the time for playing “patty cake” across the aisle has passed. Welcome back to reality.

Since March, the story of Canada’s pandemic response has been one of unprecedented teamwork between different parties and levels of government. To be sure, there have been tensions in Ottawa but for the most part, the Liberals have been able to rely on NDP and Green support to pass their COVID-19 agenda. But let’s not assign either party too many brownie points. Neither could afford the consequences of not supporting the government: an election.

However, this week marked a definite turn toward a more confrontational style of governing by the prime minister and his cabinet. Facing the prospect of new Opposition-led oversight efforts, Trudeau and Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez launched a game of high-stakes chicken.

By daring opposition parties to trigger an election, the Liberals have shown they are not afraid to play hardball to avoid legislative paralysis-by-investigation. In so doing, they’ve also made it clear they don’t intend to water down their pandemic plans to please their opponents in the House. So until the NDP and the Greens decide they have had enough, we can expect the partisan brawling to get even messier. So long, sunny ways.

Across the country, a similar process is taking place as political leaders eschew COVID cooperation in favour of closing ranks and turning on their would-be partners.

In British Columbia, Premier John Horgan was quick to turn on the BC Greens who have supported his government since 2017. Not only did the premier renege on his pledge to avoid an early trip to the polls, he’s also laid blame for the election on the other parties. Whether you view Horgan’s decision as necessary pragmatism or opportunistic overreach, his motive is clear: to exploit a pandemic opportunity to sideline his opponents and implement his agenda, his way.

And then there is the most improbable of COVID-induced friendships: the Ontario Conservatives and the federal Liberals. Last spring, Premier Ford and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland made the strangest of bedfellows. Ford called Freeland “amazing.” She said, “he’s my therapist.” Now, even that relationship is being tested.

After the Liberals’ throne speech, Ford expressed his disappointment at Ottawa’s reluctance to invest its “fair share” in healthcare. The premier has also accused Ottawa of being too lax with quarantine restrictions and has repeatedly criticized Health Canada for delays in testing across the province.

The awkwardness of this post-honeymoon phase crystallized in a joint announcement by the prime minister and Premier Ford, when the two leaders were asked what had changed in their previously rocky relationship. Ever the realist, Ford’s assessment of the political reality was very straightforward: “A big chunk of them that voted for the prime minister, voted for me. People expect us to work together.”

Ford’s right: Ontarians want him to work with the prime minister and with his favourability numbers sliding, the premier would be wise to listen. But that cooperation will become more difficult as the second wave worsens and provincial and federal priorities diverge.

And as we saw with Ford’s initial disagreements over indoor dining with Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, it is one thing to mend over political disagreements and coalesce around a scientific consensus. It is another thing entirely to find common ground when the nuances in different public health advice leave room for disagreement.

For all of us, pandemic fatigue will grow worse as the days grow shorter. For our politicians, they will grow fatigued with getting along with their natural opponents.

The problem is, this COVID thing isn’t over. We all have to put our big kid pants on, and keep our fatigue in check.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Plastics Politics: Single-use, or Here to Stay?

Last week, the federal government unveiled the six single-use plastic items they will be labelling as toxic: plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The Liberals chose these six items based on criteria including the presence of a viable replacement and damage to the environment. Clearly, something must be done about plastic pollution, but many critics oppose the drastic “toxic” label, particularly during a pandemic that has pushed plastic PPE use way up. Whether it’s the right or wrong move from a policy perspective, it’s clearly a political winner for the Liberals. This is just the beginning of plastics politics in Canada.

The Liberal, NDP, and Green voter bases have been clamouring for action, any action, on plastics for years now, marking a strong vote pickup opportunity for the Liberals. For a centre-left party that has absolutely zero chance of winning over the more conservative west, the Liberals’ best gambit is to tack left and eat up the progressive voters who themselves are hungry for action on climate change. Although policy analysts might contend that the toxic label will have knock-on effects down the road, action on climate change has been so delayed that voters will take whatever wins they can get.

Progressive voters are not the only ones who are watching the plastics file. Business concerns about the viability of their own plastics products are high, and they do register with the Liberals. Offering only six items to start with, instead of outright banning all single-use plastics, is part of that classic Liberal incrementalist strategy. Simultaneously keeping the confidence of both business and progressives is what this government has tried to do since the start, but make no mistake, even an incrementalist policy will progress over time. No where is that clearer than in the government’s own plastics policy process.

To come up with their shortlist of the sinful six, the Liberals first created a plastics long-list, showcasing all the plastics products they would consider for a ban, before whittling it down based on the above criteria. Many items were omitted from the ban due to their usefulness, lack of available replacement, and even a lack of political will. In time, new products will appear to eclipse the old plastics ones, and political viability will grow for others. This long-list gives us a roadmap for how the Liberal government, if they remain in power, will pursue their plastics long-game.

Will the plastics you produce or use end up banned? Check the long-list. If it’s on there, then now is the best time to start thinking about government relations strategies to see how you can get in on the ground floor on plastics. Connecting with the opposition will be key as well since the plastics file will hang over successive governments for years to come, but remember, Conservatives will have a tough time with voters if they undo a plastics ban. A smart government relations strategy is one that accepts that plastics bans are coming, are here for the long-term, and works to put your interests in front of government.

 

Tyler Downey is an Associate Consultant at Ensight Canada

Supreme court nominations have become a blood sport — our own top court shows they need not be

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

It seems a safe bet that, if one were to survey Canadians, more of them would be able to identify Amy Coney Barrett than any one of the judges who sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.

This may well be attributable to the fact that Barrett has, in many ways, become just another act in the ongoing circus that is the Trump administration.

But more than that, Barrett’s nomination marks the latest milestone in the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court, this time around, driving Democrats to seriously consider such radical options as “court-packing” by expanding the number of sitting justices.

While it’s true that we in Canada haven’t allowed our own Supreme Court nominations to become poisoned by partisan politics, the instinct to construe our own court in the image of the United States runs strong.

The media searches constantly for a simple, some would say simplistic, frame to understand the court’s dynamic, similar to the left-right, Republican-Democrat divide that characterizes the U.S., as with the “Gang of Five” of the 1990s or the Laskin-Spence-Dickson “LSD Connection” of the 1970s.

These efforts have foundered, however, because the Supreme Court of Canada, thankfully, continues to defy the reductive allure of partisanship. Why is that?

Well, let us begin with what Canada gets right. For starters, there is the nomination process itself, which in 2016, was formalized as an independent advisory panel.

Even before this reform, nominations were characterized by the relative absence of scandal. Even the messier instances, such as the Nadon Affair in 2013, tend to turn on narrow, technical grounds, such as regional representation.

No one in Canada is “Borked,” in the manner of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 nominee whose confirmation was the first to be destroyed in the partisan crucible of the Senate. We have yet, on a relative basis, to let our process be hijacked by zero-sum partisans.

But perhaps the most influential difference of all, in Canada, there is a mandated retirement age of 75. Had the late Justice Ginsburg served on the Canadian bench, she would have been forced out about a decade ago.

Instead, in the United States, federal judges can sit for life, due to a long-standing interpretation of Article III of their Constitution, which stipulates that justices “shall hold their offices during good behaviour.” Intended to reduce partisanship by insulating justices from the need to face voters or seek later employment, it has in fact made matters worse as lifespans have lengthened, raising the stakes of an open seat.

All that said, our own justice system is far from perfect. One need look no further than a pair of recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings that have escaped popular notice.

In a ruling in the case of R. v. Chouan, the Supreme Court found that the Trudeau Liberals’ changes to the jury selection process were constitutional. The Liberals had eliminated peremptory challenges of potential jurors, ostensibly in response to anti-Indigenous discrimination.

But the matter is not so cut-and-dry, and numerous legal groups representing racialized minorities had begged the court not to go along with the proposed changes, positing that they would have the opposite effect, making it instead harder to toss racists from the jury pool.

Another recent ruling, the case of Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, found the two men did not deserve a new trial, despite the improper selection of their jury.

Taken together, these rulings highlight the potential for a slow erosion of our own justice system. Many defence lawyers have rightful concerns, but the media and the public in this country remain fixated on the Barrett nomination instead.

It is a shame for these very real dangers to Canadians to be lost or overlooked in favour of the seductive tribalism that brought us such unhelpful memes as “Notorious RBG.” There may be much amiss in the American system of justice — but in resting on our laurels, we risk ignoring concerning developments in our own. Our justice system is imperfect, and it requires constant vigilance, not just cheap armchair moralizing.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Toxic Trump is also a superspreader of hate

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 11, 2020.

Stop the presses: on Thursday, the FBI charges 13 American citizens for conspiring in a domestic terrorist plot to kidnap and potentially murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They then wanted to start a civil war fuelled by white supremacy and discontent with lockdown restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’d begin with an assault on the state capital. Overwhelm the legislature. Attack police officers and, if the mission failed, invade Whitmer’s residence and kill the duly elected governor of the 10th largest state.

But the presses hardly stopped at all. And that’s because what should have been a “man bites dog” story was nothing more than another day in Donald Trump’s America.

The sad fact is, since the Trump-inspired rise of hate groups and “militias,” the term “domestic terrorism” is thrown around like confetti.

It is not at all random that this kind of depraved action follows in the wake of Trump’s insistent refusal to condemn white supremacy and his ratcheting up violent rhetoric about his political enemies.

Shortly after the attack was revealed to Americans, the president and his proxy, Jason Miller, wait for it, actually criticized Whitmer in the same terms as her would-be kidnappers: for the action she had taken to address the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan.

Are you kidding me?

After all, Whitmer is hardly alone. Over the past six months, every level and every stripe of government in Canada and the United States has made difficult policy decisions in the name of public health.

Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken responsible but unpopular decisions to stem the chaos of the pandemic. All of which makes them easy targets of fringe groups across the country.

But what the hell is going on when the president of the United States publicly disparages a public servant hours after a potential attempt on her life? What kind of a Kafkaesque world are we living in when the president cannot condemn the planned attack for what it is: domestic terrorism, planned and quite nearly perpetrated on American soil.

Well, the time has come to bell the cat. David Gergen, the man who has been a counsellor to more presidents than any other said it first: there is a madman in the White House.

Full of vitriol and heavy steroids, the diminished emperor king is left to careen around the halls of the White House; halls left empty because of the virus he spread.

The president has become the super-spreader of hate and in that regard, the verdict is in. Donald Trump has emboldened dangerous elements of America’s far right and in doing so he has become the very root of the problem.

We’ve seen it again and again — from his response to Charlottesville to his repeated and pathetic claims that he “doesn’t know” about people like David Duke and the Proud Boys. Well, he does know. And what’s more, he knows exactly how to speak to them in code.

Countless Americans have had their participation in public life threatened by the president’s cronies-by-proxy. For example, in Brooklyn on Wednesday, before the attack on Whitmer had been revealed, a mob of Orthodox Jewish Trump supporters attacked journalist Jacob Kornbluh.

In our world, with information coming at us daily from every direction, it has become easy to discount political language as window-dressing, disingenuous, perhaps mendacious.

Trump himself has spent five years reminding us that politicians are all crooked — except for him of course — and that the words they use are not worth the paper they’re printed on.

This is the greatest deception of all. Words matter. In politics as in everyday life, they have the power to galvanize us, to inspire us and to drive us toward despair. They move markets and set the direction for cultural change.

In Trump’s case, they also reinforce the notion of an America where this kind of action, fuelled by racist hatred and political division, is acceptable. It is not acceptable.

Enough.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Your Pre-Election Check List: How Should Businesses Engage Before the Next Election?

The current federal Liberal minority government is just shy of its one-year anniversary in power. It was one year ago, on October 21, 2019, that Canadians sent Justin Trudeau back to Parliament, albeit in a minority situation. And what a year it has turned out to be. Despite early rumours of an imminent election, it looks like Canadians will not be headed to the polls this fall. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has supported this government’s most recent Speech from the Throne and has left the door open to supporting this government even longer, provided they continue to ‘help Canadians’. On the other side of the coin is the historic evidence that suggests that minority governments only last 18 months in this country. That window comes up in March/April, conveniently around a projected March 2021 federal budget, which begs the question: Will there be a spring election?

Elections lead to uncertainty for many Canadian businesses. Once an election is called, government work shuts down for an extended period while the public service enters caretaker mode and it takes time as election results come in and the new cabinet is formed. Companies also can’t advocate for regulatory change or seek funding during a writ period, which slows the pace of business. For some companies who have aligned their priorities with the government of the day, they run the risk of a new government doing a 180-degree turn. So, as we mark the one-year anniversary of this government and hold to the conventional wisdom that the next election could be in as little as six months, what should businesses in Canada be doing right now?

First, businesses should make sure they review the language in the Speech to look for areas of alignment between federal priorities and business objectives. The Speech from the Throne sets the direction for the federal government you will see over the next 6 months. This is both the government’s blueprint of what they want to accomplish and their road map to re-election. If you like what you see, then you’re in luck, but if your core businesses issues aren’t represented, then you will be facing an uphill battle to introduce anything new into the equation.

Second, say goodbye to long-term policy wins. Governments want to be re-elected and this government will be looking for quick wins in the next six months to show as proof points on the campaign trail that they can get things done. This current session has only just begun, but already two new bills – one to establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Day and the other to ban conversion therapy – have been introduced. Both are symbolic but important bills to pass and have the added benefit of broad public support, making them relatively easy to pass into law and giving the government the checkmark they want to show the electorate on the campaign trail. This is not to say that your organization can’t continue to work with government on long-term issues, but recognize that the government is thinking in the short term and anything you can deliver that gives them a win – and more importantly, votes – in the next election will be looked at more favourably.

Third, businesses should assess their relationships with the opposition parties. While the outcome of the election is impossible to forecast at this point, it’s simply prudent to examine all of your options and be ready for any eventuality. Often, businesses are afraid of being seen as partisan or picking sides, but you don’t have to take that approach. The key is education and building relationships. Any business should take the posture of believing it’s best to invest in all relationships across the aisle. Today’s backbencher can be tomorrow’s cabinet Minister and opposition parties like being thought about before they gain power and will remember long-lasting friendships.

Finally, although the list could go on much longer, take stock of your relationships with the public service. They will largely remain in their positions regardless of the outcomes of the next election. Invest in these relationships for the long term. The political party may be the head of government, but the public servants are the neck. If it has been a while since you’ve connected with them, set up a meeting to review your priorities and refresh their memories on the issues you care about.

Predicting elections are always a fool’s errand, but these principles are ones that can help make sure your organization is ready to weather any election result.

 

Matt Triemstra is the Vice-President & General Manager of Ensight Canada. He has over 15 years of experience consulting and working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.

Lurking behind a shameful debate, a strategy built on chaos

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

It’s widely agreed that Tuesday’s faceoff between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the worst U.S. presidential debate in history. It also marked a low point in American political culture. So shambolic, so grating, so disappointing, so ridiculous it was not only almost impossible to watch, it left me feeling sick to my stomach.

The debate changed nothing. Biden still appears to be winning. Trump appeared to do nothing to win over those suburban women his campaign so covets.

But here is what did change. The debate made it obvious Trump has, once and for all, stopped running against Biden.

Instead, he is running against the idea of American democracy itself.

I have previously written in this space about my confidence in the resiliency and maturity of democracy in the United States; about the ability of its institutions to withstand the inevitable speed bumps that would come with a Trump presidency.

What I failed to account for, because it was beyond imaginable to contemplate, was Trump’s singular capacity to hollow out the institution of the presidency itself, by turning against the very democratic system that elevated him to the position in 2016.

By the time Trump’s term is done, the presidency will be so diminished that even someone as feeble as Biden will be able to occupy it. (And let us be clear: While this was a disgraceful night for Trump, it was no great showing for Biden either.)

Yes, admittedly, others who have come before Trump have helped to muddy things. From Clinton’s sexual misconduct through Bush’s dishonesty to Nixon’s prolific tape recordings, history, at times, has not been kind to the human dimension of the institution of the presidency.

But never has a president made it so explicitly his strategy to disrupt and discredit the presidential vote itself.

“This is not going to end well,” Trump said repeatedly in discussing the election. Is this a prediction? Or is it a threat?

Horrifyingly, the president’s behaviour in recent weeks suggests the latter.

In August, Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he planned to send law enforcement to polling locations. His plans have since escalated to include organizing an “Army for Trump’s Election-Security Operation.” In mid-September, on the second day of early voting in Fairfax, Virginia, a group of Trump supporters blocked the entrance to a polling location. It is not hard to see how all this might end badly.

These activities go wildly beyond the traditional election-day tradition of poll-watching, a tradition with its own problematic history. In 2018, the courts lifted a 30-year restriction on the Republican National Committee that had prevented them from any kind of poll-watching activity, after they were found guilty of intimidating voters in the 1980s.

If the courts think that Trump-era Republicans will play by the rules, they better think again.

The same goes for the Debate Commission and Vice President Biden. There is no chance the vague assurances of improvements or reforms from the federal, bipartisan commission will change a thing. What possible fix can there be when one actor is purely a nihilist, bent on chaos and destruction?

Given the rumblings of those who feel Biden should recuse himself from the next debates altogether and the fact Trump has himself been diagnosed with COVID-19, Tuesday’s showing may end up being the only debate between the two. We can only hope.

Looking ahead, there is good reason to fear what such an irresponsible actor as Trump might do come voting day on Nov. 3. Experts predict there will be an “overtime count” as swing states count a higher-than-average number of mail-in ballots, and there may be no clear victor on election night. With a president who refuses to concede, and an audience primed to expect the tidy resolution of an “Apprentice” episode, anything might happen.

And it will be in that moment that America, her people and her institutions, will be put to their real test. When the challenge to their democracy is no longer a speed bump but rather a sinkhole of proportions never before seen, just how resilient and mature will their democracy be?

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Virtual Voting Virtually Works

In a historic first on Monday night, the House of Commons held their first virtual vote on a sub amendment to the Speech from the Throne. The good news? It only took two hours. The vote comes after months of on and off wrangling amongst parties to determine how Parliament might return safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Although Parliament is supposedly a workplace like any other, not many workplaces feature a convention of 338+ Canadians in one room before allowing them to spread out to every corner of the country. And so, hybrid voting was born, and with it, significant procedural challenges.

To have their votes counted, MPs need to speak slowly and clearly, and ensure the all-powerful Zoom algorithms have chosen to fixate on the correct MP’s face to broadcast their screen throughout the chamber as they vote. Any small sound can flip the screen to another MP, which has led to parliamentary hilarity like images of Pierre Poilievre kissing his son while members voted, and the broadcast of a lovely bedtime story as told by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.

As fun as these stories sound, the reality of distance voting is serious business. Ensuring all MPs have an equal opportunity to participate in debates and votes in the House is a cornerstone of Canada’s representative democracy. Even small mistakes, like misidentifying a speaker, can cause major confusion, and given the significant digital divide in Canada between urban and rural broadband internet access, MPs with a weak internet connection run the risk of being unheard, effectively disenfranchising their constituents. The opposition was rightly wary of such a voting system pushed by the government, particularly in a minority situation where every vote is crucial. Conservative MPs have been steadfast in their belief that MPs must stand and be held accountable for their votes in the House, something that is far harder to do in a virtual setting. This accountability might not be as elusive in a hybrid model as Conservatives think, however, given that each MP had 20 seconds of screen time on average to vote, more than a voice vote in-person would afford them. Preference for a sitting model really does seem to come down to party politics.

For all the technicalities, hilarity, annoyances, and honest-to-goodness constitutional issues that can come from virtual voting, we must bear in mind that the method is here to stay until a vaccine is developed, or until the Prime Minister’s next ethics scandal forces another prorogation. So, not very long at all.