In talking about the Justin Trudeau boomlet, one Tory mischievously mentioned Kim Campbell. “Remember what happened to her.” Well, yes. After enjoying a popularity surge, she went down like a well-known ocean liner. She was too unseasoned, too inexperienced for the big time.
Another mentioned Gary Hart, the young U.S. Democrat with John Kennedy-like credentials. In 1987, Mr. Hart looked to be the Democratic star who would end the Reagan conservative era. But he got caught chasing skirts and was forced to drop out of the presidential race.
Conservatives, New Democrats and legions of Trudeau-loathers are pulling names out of history’s wastebasket to illustrate what they believe will be Justin’s reckoning – one of the great falls of them all. But, at the same time, there’s growing anxiety over the notion that the boomlet may be more than a boomlet.
When the poll numbers first came out last fall showing that Liberals led by Mr. Trudeau would beat all comers, no one took the numbers seriously. It was name recognition stuff. Voters weren’t paying attention. No big deal. In the ensuing months came the same polls and the same understandably dismissive reactions.
But now there’s been about half a year of it, and Mr. Trudeau has made some mistakes and he hasn’t put forward innovative policy. But his fantastically good numbers still stand. Everything in Canadian politics depends on whether it continues.
It’s a question no one can answer with certainty. One thing that can be said is that Mr. Trudeau’s support numbers show there’s still potential for the Liberal brand. It’s hard to make the case the brand is dying when, with a popular name attached, it clobbers all comers for six months running.
Some things have received little notice. One is that interim leader Bob Rae’s strong performance has restored some of the Liberals’ credibility. Another is that the governing Conservatives have fallen, on average, six or seven points in the polls since the last election. That constitutes a drop of about 15 per cent of their support.
Voter fatigue with the Tories may be setting in, and Canadians may be looking for a fresh alternative. Do Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats fit that bill? Mr. Mulcair is one of the most impressive opposition leaders to appear in a long time. He’s experienced, knowledgeable, articulate and in command. But he has old-school politician written all over him. The beard makes him look like he’s out of the era of Charles Tupper. His base is Quebec, which is no longer the Canadian zeitgeist. He’s caught up in tired old issues such as separatism. He’s old himself, at least compared with Justin Trudeau.
The political world forgets that, for close on a decade, Jack Layton and his New Democrats were back in the teens in the polls. Mr. Layton’s NDP had one big shining moment – its sudden surge in the last election. But it may well have been an aberration.
Canadians haven’t suddenly fallen in love with the values of the left or, for that matter, the right. They have punished the Liberals in a big way. But that’s not new. They did it in the past as well but were always prepared to bring them back. When the Grits lost power in 2006, it wasn’t because of their values. It was because they had been in office for 13 years and were beset by scandal – and voters wanted change.
The big story of Canadian politics is its consistent pattern. Canadians generally hold to moderate values and vote pragmatically. They throw parties out and they bring them back when they get tired of their alternative.
Those who say Justin Trudeau is nothing special are probably right. He hasn’t shown much. But what the soundings suggest is that it may well be he doesn’t have to show much. It may well be he need only present a decent alternative and let Canadian politics – which is about dissatisfaction with incumbents more than excitement with new faces – run its course.