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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

What to do about the Islamic State is no simple matter, obviously. The horrifying acts frighten us. Doing nothing is easy to rule out, but after that, the choices get tougher. Getting it wrong might strengthen IS and increase the possibility that Canadians will be targeted.

Overheated spin and punditry notwithstanding, Canadians show no real enthusiasm for the course we are on today. There is no such thing as a "popular" war. Most Canadians see taking up arms as a thing we do when we truly have no better alternative.

In our steady, let's-do-what-needs-doing way, few Canadians are likely to strenuously object if the government chooses to extend the mission. The polls aren't painting bright lines for our political leaders, more like a population willing to go with what the leadership of the country thinks makes the most sense, at least for the time being.

In the near term, whether the Conservatives extend the mission or withdraw, won't likely affect their political prospects. Any upside for Mr. Harper lies in the possibility of being seen as the leader offering the best of several bad choices, and an ability to explain it reasonably well. Downsides tend only to materialize in time, if the approach we are involved in doesn't work, or worse, backfires.

The near-term stakes are higher for the opposition party leaders, especially Justin Trudeau. After months atop the polls, this is the only issue that dented his popularity. In the manner he chose to oppose the government, the impression was left that he was either naïve about the threat, or something of a pacifist, or indulging in casual, jocular partisanship ("whip out our F-18s").

The more detailed ideas Mr. Trudeau laid out in his speeches about the mission many Canadians would likely find worth considering, but few probably ever heard. Being third in the House and first in the polls means it's easy to get drowned out or shouted down. The combination of voting against the government and wisecracking about the military option allowed Mr. Trudeau's opponents a sort of shorthand they were only too happy to use against him.

So, for Mr. Trudeau, the chance to make this choice again is useful, but not without risk.

If he reverses course and votes with the government on a motion to extend the mission he will be accused of doing so simply because he didn't like what happened to his popularity the last time.

If he votes against such a motion, he could look stubbornly wedded to a position that has been caricatured as too soft. Unless he makes a more compelling case that his approach is not about avoiding the fight, but winning it.

Most people don't know what would work best. They will listen to what leaders say, judging whether they have the right values, are weighing the right factors, and have considered different options.

What they want in leaders isn't enthusiasm for conflict, but sound judgment about how best to protect us. Neither a leader too ready to fight, nor one too unwilling.

In Calgary, a few weeks ago, on the subject of oil, Mr. Trudeau made a point of showing that he was a different man from his father. It was an effective point for him to make, especially on that subject, and with that audience.

On terrorism, some might recall his father's response to the FLQ threat, almost 45 years ago on the steps of Parliament Hill. The subject was the October Crisis and the use of military force in response to kidnap and murder.

Pierre Trudeau: .. there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of ...

Reporter: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

Trudeau: Well, just watch me.

In that instant, Pierre Trudeau was understood as someone who had no qualms about acting aggressively against a threat. But it's a fair question, in hindsight, whether the strong emotions Mr. Trudeau revealed in this interview were leading him to make better, or worse, decisions about how to handle the situation.

Here's Trudeau the younger commenting on the run-up to the invasion of Iraq: "Let us never forget how that mission was sold….with overheated, moralistic rhetoric that obscured very real flaws in the strategy and the plan to implement it."

We're well served when leaders advocate for the ideas they truly believe are best, whether or not they are an easy sell. For Justin Trudeau, the next debate on how to handle this threat is a new opportunity to be heard. What he does with it will tell us more about who he is and what kind of Prime Minister he would be.

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