OTTAWA — Legendary Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove, known for his no-holds-barred approach to American politics, has some advice for Canadian conservatives: simplistic, bumper-sticker sloganeering isn’t enough.
Rove on Friday kicked off the annual Manning Networking Conference, a gathering of this country’s most influential federal and provincial conservative thinkers, strategists and politicians.
This year’s event comes amid a political uproar over allegations of interference in the criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, and just seven months before Canadians head to the polls.
Rove talked about the rise of populism in the United States that led to Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, as well as how distaste for Trump’s “coarseness” and personality has since driven college-educated surburbanites, particularly women, away from the Republican party.
“All of these things sort of tie together in an imperative for the conservative movement in my country, and I suspect the conservative movement in your country as well. And that is we gotta take the proposals of the opposition seriously,” he told several hundred conference attendees.
“We need to take these proposals seriously. We can’t mock them, we can’t dismiss them with a cute phrase, we’ve gotta take them on and explain to the American people why they’re bad policy, why they’re not in keeping with the values of our state or our country. And finally, we’ve got to go out there and begin to describe — which is hard for conservatives in my country to do — what it is that we do as an alternative.”
In the U.S., he said, it’s particularly urgent for conservatives to propose alternatives to universal health care advocated by some Democrats.
He did not point to any particular issue in Canada, but arguably his message could apply to the federal Conservative party’s steadfast opposition to the Liberal government’s plan to impose a price on carbon pollution. The Tories deride the plan as a job-killing carbon tax that will drive up the cost of everything — but have yet to unveil their own plan for tackling climate change.
Rove is credited as the architect of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories. He is also a controversial figure in American politics, infamous for negative attack ads and, currently, as a key figure behind the millions in so-called “dark money” funnelled to Republican campaigns through political action committees.
Rove said Trump could win a second term next year but “I think they’re realistic, they know they’re in for a tough race.”
He predicted Trump will use a strategy pioneered by his Democrat predecessor, Barack Obama, to win a second term: appealing for unity and common purpose, which he said Trump “wisely” started talking about in his recent state of the union address. He also said Trump will portray his main opponent as someone “unworthy of holding the Oval Office” long before the election campaign gets underway.
On the last point, Rove said he thinks Trump is counting on Democrats choosing a left-wing presidential candidate who advocates things like free college education, free health care and guaranteed jobs, and said he’s already laying the groundwork for discrediting the winner.
“The president began to lay the predicate for 2020 in the state of the union address by saying, ‘We’ve never been and never will be a socialist country.’”
The Manning conference is to hear from Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford and federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Saturday.