Sunday, February 15, 2015

Political Waivers: Eve and Dimitri claimed by Team Trudeau

A version of this post has already appeared on iPolitics.

Major league baseball's spring training begins next week. My favourite sport came to mind as I was thinking about the move of Justin Trudeau's Liberal team to claim off Tory waivers high profile Conservative MP Eve Adams. It has made quite the media splash, provoking a storm of editorial and social media criticism directed at the acquisition of the new member of the Liberal team whose previous profile led CTV News to say euphemistically that she was "No Stranger to Controversy".

In baseball there is a trade term called the "player to be named later". It refers to the acquisition of minor league prospects where the exact terms of a big deal (usually involving a big name player being acquired by some team making a pennant run) are not finally resolved when the trade is executed. Among 'players to be named later' who later achieved star status is the Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

The analogy is not exact but the real potential benefit in this transaction for the Grits is not the high profile MP with the dubious past. Rather it was the player named later in all the media stories about the Tory to Liberal team transfer: her fiancĂ©, former Conservative Party executive director Dimitri Soudas. He was fired by the party in March 2014 for inappropriately assisting Adams in a nasty Conservative nomination battle.  However, one can assume he was privy until then to some important Conservative Party secrets.

So what might he potentially bring? We don't know for sure but there are a couple of possibilities. Consider previous Conservative success in undermining the popularity of previous Liberal leaders such as Stéphane Dion with TV ads that greeted them as neophyte leaders:

The destruction of Dion was followed by this attack on Michael Ignatieff:

Their efforts to undermine Justin Trudeau have so far not been as successful; the Liberals continue to perform competitively in the polls. The key point of the Conservative attacks, like the previous efforts, is that Trudeau is not capable of being PM ("in way over his head").

Going into the 2011 election, on average the Conservatives led the Liberals by about seven points over the course of the six months prior to the election call. At the moment the two parties are roughly even in the polls. This recent Abacus poll hints at why that might be: whatever success the Conservatives have had in portraying Trudeau as incompetent - Justin has made his own substantial contributions to this reputation - he continues to be liked and admired widely. The Abacus Poll found that Trudeau was the political leader most Canadians would like to have over for dinner or accompany them to a movie. However, he was not deemed someone to give you advice about how to invest money. His weakness on competence appears to be offset by his likability.

The fact the Liberals clearly wanted Soudas suggests they are quite nervous about what the Conservatives might have in mind. Even if the Conservatives' strategies and tactics shift, Soudas would know what the Conservatives think about Trudeau and the Liberals, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the Conservative Party's assessment of their own party's strengths and weaknesses. Soudas was there nearly a year after the Conservatives started up their attacks on Trudeau. He would know their assessment of why these attacks were less successful than the previous campaigns against Dion and Ignatieff and what more needed to be done. Clearly this is potentially an invaluable contribution to the Liberal campaign this year. It also makes it more difficult for future Conservative communications to catch the Liberals off guard.

The fact that the Liberals are willing to put up with the inevitable abuse suggests they feel strongly about the potential benefits of Soudas' knowledge; it is clearly worth the hostile editorials and social media mockery. This move may appear foolish on its face but it is easy to see why the Liberals made it. The prize was not Eve Adams.

The Adams deal also suggests other aspects of Liberal strategic thinking. Acquiring a defection from a Conservative MP fits with an apparent Liberal goal of winning over 2011 Conservatives who now perceive Stephen Harper as mean-spirited - it was the one clip in her press conference that had real value for the Liberals. It reinforces an emerging narrative.

Liberal support for Keystone and other efforts in Alberta suggest further that it is voters on the right rather than the left that intrigue Liberal strategists. Who better than a pair of Conservatives to help out with that.  The Liberal vagueness on policy also suggests acute anxiety about potential Conservative attacks on new policy announcements, or perhaps they are concerned about Liberal ideas designed to lure Conservatives appearing in the April budget.

A final note: the media seem to think defeating Joe Oliver will be exceedingly difficult. Based on current polls in Ontario my seat projection for Eglinton-Lawrence would suggest an easy victory for the Liberals there if the polls hold. However, Eve Adams will likely encounter other potential candidates making the same assessment. Winning the nomination is going to be the hard part for Eve Adams and Dimitri Soudas. Making a late season trade does not guarantee a pennant for a baseball team; that goes for this deal as well.