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John Ibbitson

If Trudeau leads, will Liberals follow? Add to ...

When considering Justin Trudeau, Liberals must decide whether they are ready to hand their embattled party over to a new generation of leadership. And they must decide whether they are ready to stick by that new leader for six long years.

Mr. Trudeau is expected to announce next week that he is a candidate for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He brings more than a famous name and gorgeous hair to the contest.

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If he succeeds, he will bring thousands of supporters – a recently created category that allows any Canadian to vote for Liberal leader without having to join the party formally – who will rally to a young man (he is 41) sounding the ancient political cry of hope and change.

Change from what? From a party that no longer understands Canada: the dynamism of the West; the beleaguered, defiant French in Quebec; and especially the many millions who live in the suburban cities that dominate Southern Ontario.

Those millions, many of them recent immigrants, mostly belong to a middle class that is suspicious of governments that promise to help them with health care, education and other needs, but that seem careless about protecting and promoting the businesses that make those services possible.

Stephen Harper has made it his life’s mission to connect with them, to understand them, to talk to them in their language. But this is now a second language for Liberals, and they are far from fluent.

Both political strategist Warren Kinsella (Fight the Right) and former journalist Paul Adams (Power Trap) have new books exploring what is wrong with the left and how to fix it. Both identify the core weakness of progressives in Canada: They cannot describe their values.

Everyone knows what Conservative values are: promoting self-reliance; getting government out of your face; keeping taxes low and finances sound; encouraging business growth; going after criminals, relentlessly.

The Harper government makes sure that every policy, every action, every word speaks to and reinforces those values, which the party shares with a large and loyal base. “The Conservatives have developed a core constituency with broadly shared values that distinguishes it from all of the opposition parties,” Mr. Adams writes.

But what do progressives value? Protecting the environment? Helping struggling families? What does that mean? How much would it cost? And what are the chances it would work?

The Liberals, Mr. Adams observes, are “not very good at putting themselves around the table at a Tim Hortons after the game.” If you can’t do that in the current political environment, you can’t win elections.

To this challenge, Mr. Trudeau brings a thin résumé. He has youth, a storied name, decent smarts and a certain something that makes people like him. That this may be enough speaks volumes about how low the bar is set for the job of Liberal leader.

But if he’s any good at all, he would learn on the job. His political opponents would inflict some hard lessons, his own caucus even harder ones, and the voters would take care of the rest.

If he’s any good at all, the supporters he hopes to rally to his campaign would stick with him, even when the Liberals lose the election of 2015. (It’s almost unheard of for a political party to go from worst to first in only one term.)

If he’s any good at all, the party would stick with him, too. The Liberals need to stop changing leaders after every defeat. It only increases the chances of another defeat.

The Liberal Party, if it is wise, will value one thing above all in whoever is chosen leader: the ability to speak to the suburban middle class about what they and the leader both value. That is Mr. Trudeau’s challenge. Nothing else really matters at all.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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