It’s unquestionably a good thing for Canadian politics that Justin Trudeau is going to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Whether it turns out to be a good thing for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party is less certain.
Mr. Trudeau’s obviously an energetic man who is passionate about making a difference in public life. He’s chosen to donate years of his life to politics, which is hard, often thankless work.
He champions the need for young people to be part of Canadian politics. The disillusionment and cynicism that he’s trying to break down is eating away at the muscles of our democracy. His is a worthy crusade. His visibility, and the platform he wants to own, would take this issue to a new level, and that alone means there is much to cheer in his candidacy.
But so far, its hard not to wonder if this is the sum total of Mr. Trudeau’s aspiration for the country. If so, there’s little chance, no matter how charming a man he is, that it will be enough to put the Liberal Party back in the game.
If, as expected, he launches his campaign next week, I don’t think this will turn out to be a joyful, uneventful march towards a coronation. While he may well win, he will endure more uncomfortable scrutiny than ever before, from those within his party and observers without.
In one sense, the party and Mr. Trudeau should welcome such a vetting process: the alternative would mean that too few people care what happens with the Liberal Party any more.
But it won’t be fun. Mr. Trudeau himself has spent years suggesting he wasn’t yet ready to lead. The obvious question will be how did he all of a sudden become ready – or is this happening because there doesn’t seem to be any other choice for the party or Mr. Trudeau?
Some Liberal strategists who love the idea of a Justin candidacy speak first about the chance to regain past glories in Quebec. They point out that he won his riding against stiff headwinds. They love a favourite son narrative, and why not.
But they seem to want to shrug off questions about whether for many Quebeckers the Trudeau brand is about a muscular federalism, and a rejection of Quebec as a distinct society, unpopular ideas there to say the least. To simply be a Trudeau guarantees you will be heard. But it also guarantees that you will draw fire, once in a position of authority.
Those who know Mr. Trudeau best say his intellect, political instincts and charm should not be underestimated. That his boxing victory reveals more self-discipline than people may realize. And his wins in Papineau speak to his ability to connect with average voters and fight headwinds successfully. All fair points.
But, since the unofficial start of the Liberal leadership race, the expectation of Justin’s candidacy has not ignited a modern version of Trudeau-mania. Does it beg the question whether this an idea that looks better in the test tube of Ottawa, but might not do what’s intended in the real world?
Mr. Trudeau will draw the camera like none of the other apparent contenders. This is a currency of great value for the Liberal Party. It can also be unflattering. What happens now, happens in high definition and in real time.
Voters yearning for some sense of authenticity will try to figure out what makes this man tick. His limited experience means there won’t be much to chew over. His in-the-moment performance will therefore be under all the more pressure, and he hasn’t had a chance to build the instincts and scar tissue that come with a few years at the centre of things.
His brainpower will be measured against that of other candidates, potentially including highly accomplished people like Marc Garneau, but also against that of his father, unavoidably.
Those Liberals looking for a modern incarnation of Pierre Trudeau will yearn for the quick, biting wit, and the swagger and force of his father’s personality. So far, Justin Trudeau seems cut from a different mould than that, and will need to make Liberals like and embrace that fact, even if they had been hoping for something else.
Bad days, and there always are some, may carry bigger consequences, because there is too little foundation of public knowledge about this man. His looks like a candidacy that it about a long road to recovery for the Liberal Party – there’s an almost implicit acknowledgement that he probably can’t be in a position to win the next election.
Many in the Liberal Party know that the chances of extinction are real, and the consequences of making the wrong choice are dire. The race will become interesting with the entry of its first star candidate. But I suspect it will be far from over.
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 Senior Advisor with NATIONAL Public Relations.
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