Adventures of a political gun-for-hire

Canada’s David Axelrod tells tales from his 50-odd campaigns.

The slow cheerful growl comes down the phone line and then pauses: “Lash … sin … jher.” It is the signature greeting that hundreds of Canadians in all streams of political life have heard on the other end of the line for more than four decades. In the early years it was usually a call to fellow Progressive Conservatives. In the past two decades, though, John Laschinger’s client Rolodex has included Canadians of every political stripe—and a collection, implausibly, of Kyrgyz politicians.

If John Laschinger were American, he would be our James Carville, or David Axelrod or Bob Shrum or Karl Rove. In Canada the idea of a campaign manager as an independent businessman, a gun for hire, is virtually unknown. Most who run big Canadian campaigns do so as party employees or government political staff on loan, or in the old days as corporate or trade union bosses “volunteering.”

In this marvellous collection of campaign war stories, Lasch—as he is universally known—tells tales from the more than 50 campaigns he has led or co-managed. He has helped run campaigns in seven provinces, several mayoralties, the United Kingdom and, yes, Kyrgyzstan—three times! David Miller, Brian Topp and Olivia Chow, all New Democrats, have benefitted from the Lasch ­treatment.

In Leaders and Lesser Mortals: Backroom Politics in Canada, his first collection of war stories, published in 1992, Laschinger was more purely Tory, but he could still tell hilarious tales about his own gang. Bill Davis briefly contemplated running to succeed Joe Clark as federal party leader. His boys were quietly assembled for an evening of conspiracy when no one was around. The whisky was poured, the cigars were lit and the plotters set to work. Unfortunately, Laschinger reveals, no one told them that the air conditioning was turned off at night, and their cigars set off the fire alarms. The conspiracy came to an abrupt end when “twenty firemen in full equipment suddenly burst in … Davis thought better of being a candidate.”

This year’s volume is far more about permanent truths, across the spectrum of politics, at every level of power, and even internationally. It is clearly Lasch’s effort at a legacy and lessons for a new generation.

There are few useful Canadian books on the practice of political campaigns. We do not often get the powerful insider analysis of a David Axelrod in his brilliant Believer: My Forty Years in Politics or the keen observation of the human cost of politics by Richard Cramer, whose epic What It Takes: The Way to the White House leaves the reader breathless at the sacrifice made by candidates and their families in the tightly fought 1988 U.S. presidential campaign.

We are instead overwhelmed by hagiographic bios, tick-tock narratives spun by winners to gullible authors, and too many self-promotional leaders’ memoirs. It caused a small scandal in Ottawa’s political village that John Ibbitson’s Harper apologia won the prize as the best political book of the year, as one recent example of the difference in quality.

Laschinger’s chronicles are that much more precious as he is also perhaps the last icon of a fading era. In 1974, the year we met—he had just become the Progressive Conservatives’ national director, and I was in the same chair at the NDP—the idea of a barbaric practices tip line would not have been acceptable as a private joke in a Laschinger campaign. Sure, graveyards were often very loyal voters, but calling live voters to scare them away from the polls? Never. Leaking Jack Layton’s embarrassment in a massage parlour decades before would have got you fired from just about any party’s campaign.

Lasch was part of that standard setting: always civil, he loves the game and hates losing. Like the late Keith Davey, the Liberal Party’s famous rainmaker and master of Pierre Trudeau’s greatest victories, he could reach across tribal boundaries to comfort a competitor in personal difficulty. Lasch reveals Davey showed him great respect at a difficult personal moment.

Laschinger finds the hobnailed boots of the youngsters of the political tribes today hard to bear. Campaign managers then knew that excessive campaign savagery risked violent escalation that would only discredit everyone. The book ends with his winning percentage compared with the Toronto Blue Jays. No prizes for guessing who did better.

Philosophically, Lasch remains a Davis/Stanfield Tory, although he made his peace with Mike Harris’s harder edge. On a polygraph, he would have a hard time proving his loyalty to Harperism. Like Norm Atkins, Hugh Segal or Harry Near, he was of a generation of “one Canada” progressive Tories. The slice-and-dice approach to segmenting your target audience into the base and the enemy would have been anathema. For a campaign manager to propose deliberately insulting one group of Canadians to wedge them against another, for partisan advantage, would have been career ending.

As a strategic analyst of research data, Lasch has only two or three Canadian peers. This memoir is scattered with lessons about the use and misuse of numbers by campaigns—and a delightfully poignant photo of his delivering devastating numbers to Ontario Conservative leader John Tory on election eve. Nor was he above trickery and sleight of hand. He would taunt and enrage reporters by patting his suit jacket conspiratorially and saying things like, “I have in my pocket here some numbers that would blow your mind if I could show them to you! But I’m sorry, I can’t. Have to share them with the leader first—he’ll be smiling, believe you me.”

Great campaign managers always have great intuition. Laschinger describes how his gut and his read of the mid-campaign numbers told him that the Harper campaign team had made a fatal mistake with their taunting anti-Trudeau ads. It was clear to him that in lowering performance expectations about Justin Trudeau in their ads and endless trash talking was a trap. When the untested leader exceeded them, in the opening debate, in Lasch’s view the die was cast.

While he pioneered many of the tools now conventional in Canadian campaigns—direct mail, phone banking and its social media equivalents, rolling overnight polling, targeting—he remains very traditional in his view about what wins: the candidate, he says over and over. All the money and organization in the world cannot save a weak or error-prone leader, especially one up against a confident competitor with a compelling vision. Laschinger hammers his view that candidate character is always key, citing his research from British Columbia to Kyrgyzstan, about voters’ ability to spot it. And candidates with simple strong messaging overwhelm competitors with much larger war chests and better organization. In three of the last four Toronto mayoral campaigns the biggest spender lost—and Laschinger won two of them.

For those who want an irreverent, insightful potted history of the most interesting campaigns over the last generation, Campaign Confessions is a perfect introduction. Geoffrey Stevens, a veteran of The Globe and Mail, has avoided heavy use of his editor’s pencil on Laschinger’s rambling storytelling style, while deftly shaping the book’s narrative arc. As for professionals looking for tips on how to develop their skills in the dark arts, this is required reading. Laschinger’s lists of dos and don’ts should be lifted by every party for their campaign management schools.

If Laschinger ever comes across as a little too old school, it is in his skeptical treatment of the impact of social media. Most Canadian campaigners are at least five years behind the leading American campaign technology pioneers, but the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is clear proof those tools are the future: social media launched, helped grow and then fund both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The Clinton team has a team of a hundred doing digital content, spending more than $100 million.

Perhaps the saddest tales are those from his decade of attempting to help Kyrgyz democratic leaders cement their liberation from the Soviet empire. Laschinger helped them win elections, but in the end—as in so many other former Soviet satellites—oligarchs recaptured power.

Laschinger has provided a rich behind-the-scenes look at political campaigns as they are actually fought. His respect for the craft and all its players makes this an even rarer treat.