Life isn’t fair. Some people spend decades crafting their political philosophy and paying their dues, rebuilding their shattered party and leading it back from the wilderness. You work like a dog to get to the top, and you lead the strongest economy in the developed world, and for what? Half the voters loathe you, on a good day.
Then along comes a kid with nothing more than brand recognition and good hair, and people go gaga over him.
Justin Trudeau, heir apparent of the Liberal Party, has the kind of personal electricity that makes people slide off their chairs. As one caller (middle-aged, female) gushed to Rex Murphy on Cross Country Checkup, “The boy has the package.”
Justin’s charm (like his father’s) is not a superficial asset. It’s a gift, and it can’t be bought or taught. In an age when politicians are generally regarded as the lowest form of life on the planet, it’s a huge advantage.
Elites across the spectrum (including old-line Liberals) are rolling their eyes that the best bet to save the Liberals is a pretty-boy celebrity. The pundits never tire of pointing out that Justin’s dad, Pierre, had substance as well as charm, while Justin doesn’t seem to have a policy idea in his curly-haired head. These critics miss the point. Policy is worthless if you can’t get them to peek inside the tent.
And like his father, Justin embodies a promise of something fresh and new. That’s what people are responding to. They aren’t nostalgic for the past; they want to break from the past. They desperately hope that, somewhere in our pack of aging hacks and dreary second-raters, there might be someone worth believing in.
“He’s a visual manifestation of change,” says pollster Darrell Bricker, whose new book, The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future (written with The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson), argues that our country is undergoing a fundamental realignment. “You couldn’t have picked anybody more different from the other two political leaders if you tried.”
He’s right. Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair are grumpy old men with chips on their shoulders as big as logs. One wants more pipelines, and one wants to save the planet. Justin says we can do both and sounds as if he means it. “I like that he talked about a new way to do politics,” says someone who met him last week.
The “new way” isn’t that new. It’s straight from Barack Obama’s playbook, circa 2008. The words hope, change, compassion and community figure prominently. Like the early Mr. Obama, Mr. Trudeau vows to reach out to everyone and bring a new civility to politics.
“The left needs to love,” Mr. Bricker told me. “They need to be inspired by their leaders.” So what if Justin’s résumé is thin? Mr. Obama’s was, too, and so was JFK’s, and people didn’t care. (Right-wing voters are less emotional and more pragmatic. They simply want somebody to be competent, do a decent job and stay out of their face.)
The Liberal Party leadership is no prize. But the progressive vote in Canada, Mr. Bricker contends, is up for grabs. For now, Justin’s real opponent isn’t Mr. Harper but Mr. Mulcair, who inherited the impressive coalition stitched together by Jack Layton. Justin’s got to win back the urban professionals, the academics, the Quebeckers and the young, and convince them that he’s their best bet for slaying the Evil One.
And then? Well, 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s pirouetting into power. It’s way too early for Mr. Harper to be sweating. But he might be starting to feel a little bit warm.