To defeat Pierre Poilievre, Liberals will have to first understand his appeal

Article originally published in The Star

For many progressives, Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre holds the appeal of an ingrown toenail. He exists only to slowly and relentlessly burrow under the skin, causing pain, frustration and annoyance. Fortunately for Poilievre, he doesn’t have to sell himself to liberals, upper or lowercase.

His campaign raises legitimate questions about if he can broaden his appeal and win a general election, but that is no reason to assume he can’t. In fact, someone in the Liberal party had better be working off the assumption that Poilievre will win the next election.

Without the electoral imagination to understand why people would vote for Poilievre, it will be difficult for Liberals to convince people why they shouldn’t.

There are strategic exercises people who would never vote for Poilievre can use to build the case for him. They can show how Poilievre could win an election — and give the Liberal party three years to build a plan to ensure that he does not.

People who have developed campaign messaging are familiar with the “four boxes” exercise. Participants come up with answers to fill message boxes titled “what do we say about ourselves,” “what do we say about our opponents,” “what do our opponents say about us,” and lastly, “what do our opponents say about themselves.”

The last one, what do opponents say about themselves, is often the most difficult — and the most valuable. Describing your opponents’ ideas, using their language, forces people to explore why the other side may have appeal. Or, God forbid, a valid point.

Poilievre doesn’t tell the people he’s peddling grievance politics and blaming a system that’s employed him his entire adult life. He says the government has left you behind, and that he’s the guy to give you back your freedom to live your life while making sure you can afford it.

Your only response to that message cannot be that people are stupid for believing him.

Another exercise, taken from military planning, is the concept of a “red team.” The red team goes beyond understanding the other side and starts acting like them. Think of “white-hat” hackers, who attack cybersecurity systems to look for vulnerabilities so they can be fixed.

The smartest people the Liberals have should be writing policy memos in support of Poilievre’s policy to abolish the carbon tax, even attacking the Liberals for its implementation. Better Liberals attack their own policies and learn to defend them, than find themselves without answers when Poilievre does.

Blind spots can affect any organization united in a common cause. The State of Israel went so far as to create a doctrine colloquially referred to as the “Tenth Man.” Essentially, if nine people look at the same information and reach the same conclusion, the tenth one is obligated to argue the other side. (The most succinct explanation is found in “World War Z,” a largely underrated zombie movie.)

Rhetoric aside, Poilievre is talking about housing, affordability, inflation and freedom. He is also drawing large crowds and media coverage while he does it. If there are nine Liberals who don’t think Poilievre can win the next election, it would be wise to have a tenth one arguing why he can and will.

Finding any politician detestable is no reason to think others will. There is plenty of outright hatred for Justin Trudeau in Conservative spaces, and he’s beat them three times now.

If Pierre Poilievre becomes leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Liberals need a plan to beat him during the next election campaign in three years. It’s hard to plan for something that you don’t believe will happen, which is why someone must make the case for why it will.

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