There can be no surprise in the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau’s best friend and former aide is returning as some kind of campaign adviser. It would have been a big surprise if Gerald Butts stayed away.
Mr. Butts wasn’t just instrumental to Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 election victory and his first three years in office. It’s not just that he ran much of the government in tandem with Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. He was ever-present, a gut check alter ego for the PM – and so full of the Trudeau Liberal political project that it would be hard to imagine he could sit on the sidelines. Or that Mr. Trudeau wouldn’t be calling him.
Reports of Mr. Butts’s return quickly led political opponents such as Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer to complain that a Liberal key to the SNC-Lavalin affair was coming back. But in fact the peculiar thing about Mr. Butts’s February resignation was that nothing substantial really linked him to scandalous behaviour in the affair.
That was all about whether Mr. Trudeau and his aides put pressure on former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt the bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin for a settlement. And though there was evidence that explains why Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt she was under pressure, there wasn’t any evidence of Mr. Butts doing the pressing, apart from a suggestion to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff that she seek a legal opinion on the case.
No, Mr. Butts’s return isn’t going to mean a revival of the SNC-Lavalin affair. The return of an aide as a campaign strategist isn’t going to be a lightning rod for the electorate.
Yet the fact that Mr. Butts is back on Team Trudeau after the SNC-Lavalin affair is a symbol of the big question the Liberals face: can Mr. Trudeau get past the sense of disillusionment and disappointment that many voters who once supported him seem to feel. Can Gerry Butts help Justin Trudeau get his mojo back?
His return won’t quite be a return to the old role, according to the not-terribly-specific accounts of his 2019 role. In 2015, Mr. Butts was by Mr. Trudeau’s side on the campaign plane while Ms. Telford ran things from HQ. This time, he is apparently to be a strategist, giving advice to campaign manager Jeremy Broadhurst – and presumably talking on the phone to Mr. Trudeau.
But his job will have to be about renewing Mr. Trudeau’s capacity to connect with voters. Mr. Butts, after all, was chief designer of the hope-and-hard-work, sunny ways Justin Trudeau image that caught a wave in the 2015 campaign and inspired a numbers of new voters to go to the polls. Aside from calculated campaign strategy, he seemed to have an intuition for Trudeau symbolism.
But now the focus groups include disaffected former admirers who tell political strategists different things about Mr. Trudeau: that he’s all talk, or that he doesn’t always mean what he says, or do what he says. Once people thought he was the authentic article, now people accuse him of being just another politician.
That’s a big issue for the Liberal campaign. Mr. Trudeau’s connection to voters was critical in 2015: people wanted to hear what he had to say. If he can regain that connection, it could be the difference. The Liberals have other campaign strategists, but it was Mr. Butts who was key to helping Mr. Trudeau make the magic.
The spell isn’t quite as powerful these days. A term in government changes that. Dropped promises such as electoral reform serve as symbols. Mr. Trudeau’s tendency in office to mouth empty phrases in response to questions has depleted the reputation for authenticity he had in 2015. The SNC-Lavalin affair, and Mr. Trudeau’s multiple, changing politician’s answers about it, symbolized that, too.
Mr. Butts’s departure during that controversy is still something of an oddity. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s extensive testimony about pressure didn’t, in the end, include any directly applied by Mr. Butts. It became clear that she blamed Mr. Butts for her cabinet demotion, however, and it appears he felt, at the time, that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was coming for him. Mr. Trudeau ascribed the whole business to a breakdown between his minister and his adviser. In Mr. Trudeau’s Ottawa, the departure of Mr. Butts was a sure sign things had gone really badly.
Now, he’s back. And surely his job as a strategist will have to be about renewal, too: trying to dispel some of the sense of disillusionment and recast Mr. Trudeau’s narrative for 2019.
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