With a week to go, this leadership race has been rewarding for the Liberal Party, all things considered. A victory for Justin Trudeau was predicted from the outset as it is today. But if the outcome never seemed in doubt, did we learn anything from the process? I think so.
Despite being the overwhelming favourite, Mr. Trudeau’s challenge hasn’t really been to live up to high expectations, but instead to overcome doubts about whether he was up to the scrutiny of national political leadership, and whether he has good ideas about the direction Canada needs. On the first point, anyway, there’s more information upon which to form an opinion.
His campaign team, led by Gerry Butts and Katie Telford, has been a model of effectiveness. Front-runner campaigns always face extra scrutiny, because of the news value when folks up front stumble. There’s been little for critics or opponents to make a meal of. When they hit a bump or two in the road, they dealt with it quickly, put it behind them, and continued to stay true to their strategy. Not only did they live within their means, in a world where raising money is harder than ever, they ended their campaign with a substantial amount of cash in the bank.
Mr. Trudeau was inevitably going to be the target of all of his opponents, and while none of them went after him aggressively, he handled their subtle and more direct criticisms with unflappability.
An occasionally awkward speaker in the past, in his speech at Saturday’s Liberal showcase, Trudeau found another gear. Whether his speech was mediocre or better wasn’t going to matter to the outcome. As it turns out, it was quite a bit better than that.
The speech, while devoid of any hard policy content, revealed a well thought out political strategy.
He told progressive minded Canadians that political change would require balanced, centrist ideas, contrasting the Liberals with the NDP. This led to a well-turned argument against a merger. By saying that bringing the parties together would create an entity with warring factions that would extend, not end Conservative rule, he struck a chord with many Liberals, weary as they are of internecine conflicts.
Mr. Trudeau laid out what we can expect will be a central theme of his leadership, the idea that Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair are both divisive, for their own partisan purposes. This is not a new argument aimed at Mr. Harper, but is a potentially important line of attack on the NDP. Mr. Trudeau’s promise that he would never “use western resources to buy eastern votes” was both an appeal to western voters, and a blunt attack on Mr. Mulcair’s energy and economic themes.
Mr. Trudeau attacked the Conservative vision for Canada as being too small. He derided the idea that we should be satisfied that we’re “doing better than Europe.” Describing a more compelling, big picture aspiration may be the biggest opportunity for the Liberals, and the vulnerability Conservatives most need to reflect on.
Finally, Mr. Trudeau dealt with the political elephant in the room, by asking, and answering, the question of whether his campaign had something to do with his father having been PM. Instead of trying to persuade voters otherwise, he celebrated the influence of a parent on a child, arguing that this was something that was natural, normal and universal in Canadian families.
Along the way, he told a human story about his “dad” and he told it well, using language that was powerful because it was simple and personal. The best politicians are good storytellers, making people draw closer because they sense they are hearing something revealing.
If New Democrats and Conservatives are not yet concerned about the competitiveness of a Trudeau-led Liberal Party, they have reason to be.
This is a man who is still green, but whose skill as a communicator has matured a lot in a few months. As a presenter, he can seem more empathetic and energetic than his rivals. His resumé may be thin, but his optimism is wide, and optimism can become viral.
To be sure, the next phase of his political life will not be easy. He will need to start to flesh out ideas, which will draw intense fire. His opponents are tougher and more skilled than most of the people he has been sharing a stage with.
However, if polls are telling us anything, it is that voters will give this man “standing,” to use the term employed by Michael Ignatieff. What he does with it will be interesting to watch.
Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.