Chairman's Desk

It’s time for Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau’s advisers to speak truth to power

Dr. Martin Luther King said the true measure of an individual is not how they behave in moments of comfort and convenience but how they stand at times of controversy and challenge.

For political advisers, this principle isn’t just part of their job description — it’s the very essence of it.

It is never easy to speak truth to power, and it is even more difficult in the face of genuine competing priorities that pit your allegiance to a candidate against your loyalties to your party and your duty to your country.

And yet, this is precisely the spot those who work with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden find themselves in. Whether you agree with their politics or not is immaterial. These people have chosen to go into public life to make this place — our place — a better one.

To do this, they have picked a side (a party), a quarterback (a candidate), put the rest of their life on hold (family and friends) and worked like hell to make that difference.

But as hard as these advisers work and as smart as they are as analysts or strategists or leaders, to truly serve well, they must never lose their objectivity. As the truism goes, a candidate who is their own campaign manager, leads a campaign doomed from the get-go.

But what is that objectivity? Where does it sit? How does an adviser know when they are too close to be both the partisan warrior and the ruthlessly dispassionate adviser their principal needs them to be? How do they know the moment that the only door before their candidate is the one marked “exit.”

Those entrusted with supporting both Trudeau and Biden are facing that moment, that decision, right now.

And as much as it might seem blindingly obvious based on every tanking poll, raving pundit, rat leaving the ship, not to mention plain old common sense, it is extraordinarily difficult advice to give.

Having been one of those advisers, I know how hard it is. I’d love to say I dared to stand tall and stand up to the leader, my colleagues and friends, and spoken my piece. But the truth is that for every time I have done that, I have succumbed to group think too many times and signed on to the machismo of the political locker room and opted to be “one of the boys.”

I have explained my choices away by describing how difficult or complex the situation was. And even though the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t, there are usually three things that make arriving at a decision seem more difficult than it is.

First, political leaders exist in a bubble shared with people whose jobs depend on that leader keeping their job. And while these are at their core opportunities rather than jobs, advisers have just as challenging a time grieving a defeat as their candidate.

Second, wishful thinking spreads like wildfire in these bubbles. Often expressed as an “out-of-the-box idea” or a “Hail Mary pass,” it is most often presented with a sense of obligation on the part of the campaign to deliver it for the candidate. Of course, this is nonsense. When the campaign gets to this stage, it’s time to stop feeding the fire with the furniture and make the tough decisions needed to preserve resources to fight another day.

Third, there is no luxury of indecision. And that’s because the leader is the leader until they are not. The entire campaign must convey the image that they are in it until the end. That’s why you will hear Trudeau and Biden resoundingly declare they’re staying on until, seemingly suddenly, they announce they’re going.

Getting to the point where advisers show a candidate the exit may be a straightforward exercise, but it is complicated by the conflicting priorities of the candidate, the party and the country. These competing challenges and their relative imports are unknowable.

What is known is the importance of being surrounded by advisers during those moments of controversy and challenge. Advisers don’t just form the present; they are a direct driver of what shape that leader’s legacy takes for all time.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on July 6, 2024.

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