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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Bill Clinton campaigned with the theme song "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." Ronald Reagan trumpeted "Morning in America" in his 1984 campaign about a prouder, stronger, better future. Barack Obama won a landslide victory talking about Hope and Change.

Each enjoyed big electoral success. What they had in common is that they were all campaigns about aspiration, about the future.

In contrast, George H. W. Bush, the only one-term president of the last five, lamented after the fact that he didn't put enough thought and effort into what he clumsily referred to as "the vision thing." The lesson he learned was that it matters, and that being able to articulate it is critical to successful leadership.

Not every winning campaign is about the future, and not every campaign about the future comes out on top. But given a choice between a discussion about the last few years or the years that lie ahead, all but the most partisan voters are more interested in what comes next.

In recent years political campaigns become easily mired in the politics of who did or said what in the last little while and what things could be accomplished in the next year or two.

But is this smaller-ball, shorter-horizon approach the best idea for campaigning in Canada in 2015?

Polling suggests this election probably won't be about expressing either delight or anger with the current government, at least not for most voters.

About one in three think that the Conservatives have governed so poorly that they deserve to be thrown out of office. A smaller number feel they've governed well enough to deserve another mandate. That leaves a large swath of voters who are somewhere in-between, not sure who they will cast a ballot for, or on what question their choice will turn.

Opposition parties are naturally tempted to spend much of their time campaigning about the blemishes and errors of the government. It's a natural extension of the work they do every day. You develop a head of steam about the things that have offended you, have raised money, and rung the bell of the Prime Minister.

Incumbents are naturally tempted to talk about the things they've done, and the next logical steps in the program they've put in place.

But there's a vacuum to be filled. It's rare to hear leaders talk about dreams, except maybe how to avoid a nightmare.

Conservatives want to make government smaller, increase trade, reduce taxes and keep people safe. The NDP want to raise minimum wages, subsidize childcare and tax polluters. The Liberals want to help the middle class, build infrastructure to grow the economy, and be less partisan than the Tories and more pragmatic than the NDP.

We can be happy that we have three distinct choices. But the conversation can feel more like a "what do we need to do" list than a "who do we want to be" list. More about means, less about ends.

Some might say the era of New Deals and Great Decades and Just Societies is over for good. That our cynicism about politics has grown to the point where the only safe thing to do is to tell people what you will do, exactly what you will do, tomorrow and the day after that, and the day after that.

Maybe. But I suspect all three party leaders could stand to look at their current stump speeches, and ask themselves if they might be fare better by lifting their gaze a bit more. What kind of Canada do we want 20 or 30 years from now? What will it take for our young people to flourish? How will our culture evolve, and what should we do to shape that? Will we be known in the world for a set of defining values and if so, which ones?

As the election nears, the temptation to narrow the gaze, and shorten the horizon will be stronger. The rewards of good pugilism are instant and satisfying. But it could well be that the best way to break out, to find momentum, to set the political agenda, would be to imagine a future that is less about responding to threats, fixing what's gone wrong, or improving things at the margin. More about what leadership can inspire, when at its very best.