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Opinion Justin Trudeau, a Prime Minister of symbols, falls to Earth

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 10, 2019 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Scott Reid is a political analyst and principal at Feschuk.Reid and served as director of communications to prime minister Paul Martin.

Justin Trudeau is a mortal now.

That might seem like a ridiculous observation. What right-thinking person ever considered the Prime Minister to be something other than an actual flesh-and-blood, breathing mammal?

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But if you consider the unique political space he occupied until only recently – if you acknowledge the symbolism and implied promise that so fundamentally shaped his leadership – then you begin to recognize that mortal was the precise opposite of how many Canadians have regarded our present Prime Minister.

Even in 2015, from the unimposing perch of third-party leader, Mr. Trudeau stood apart and above from his political rivals. They sought electoral success. They craved power. He was something else – a creature of pure aspect, a vehicle for principles and the principled alike. He wasn’t political in the standard sense of that ambivalent term. He was someone who would use politics to transform and uplift. To deliver, as his own campaign slogan suggested, “real” change.

Frequently, he backed that up: A Liberal leader who expelled Liberal-appointed senators from his own caucus. A self-declared feminist who built an unapologetically gender-balanced cabinet. A leader committed to redress and reconciliation. And, of course, a Prime Minister who selected a rookie MP to serve as Canada’s first female Indigenous Minister of Justice.

Even as he settled into the complexities of running the country, this brand sustained. Yes, Mr. Trudeau walked away from the promise of electoral reform when consensus proved elusive. Sure, he bit his lip in the presence of that philistine Donald Trump in order to secure a new trade deal. But, for most of his followers, these were understandable, acceptable compromises. Slight concessions to the practicalities required of anyone burdened with national responsibilities. None of it much changed his standing in their eyes.

Of course, his critics never bought any of it. But they made fools of themselves by persistently dismissing him as a lightweight and pretender – ignoring the indisputable fact that Mr. Trudeau was routinely kicking their ass by winning every contest from the boxing ring to the general election. Despite their best efforts, they never really laid a glove on the guy.

That’s all changed now.

The removal of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus – and the messy spectacle of fighting with two of his own valued recruits – has accomplished what three years of governing and many years of opposition attacks could not.

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Mr. Trudeau has been remade into a mere mortal, a regular old politician – as someone concerned with the calculations and machinations that no office holder can actually afford to ignore, but which his most ardent admirers somehow imagined he was invulnerable to, at least partly because they had been encouraged in that belief.

This does not mean, as some excitable observers have insisted, that Mr. Trudeau is done. He’s not. But his relationship with voters has been irretrievably altered and, with only a few months before the campaign launches, that fact will reshape the coming election.

The implications for the Prime Minister and his team are particularly profound. Gone are the days of pronouncing from on high and equating his own actions with the uncontested public good. His right of assertion has been surrendered. That’s the bitter price of the past two months. From here on out, he must, like the rest of us, go forth and compete for the right to claim his way as the superior path.

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He can, and should, maintain the priorities he has championed for years – building a stronger middle class and including everyone in that journey. But he will need to find a new way to campaign: one with less swagger and without assumption. He invites too great a backlash of cynicism – even from constituencies he has traditionally counted as allies – if he makes his appeal from a place of unqualified principle and higher calling. Humility is a great tonic with voters. A few drops will be necessary to cut the sharp taste left in the mouth of Canadian voters after the past few weeks.

It is worth noting that there is a historical precedent to which he can turn. In that tight, tense period from 1972 to 1974 another prime minister named Trudeau was also forced to refashion his approach after the euphoric start of 1968. He proved it can be done, but man oh man, it was close.

For the opposition, there is an equally important caution to be observed. Many Conservative and NDP operatives, spurred on by a small number of peculiarly enraged columnists, wish to believe that Mr. Trudeau has been exposed as the phony they always imagined him to be. They flirt with the great risk of repeating past errors – of once again underestimating the Liberal leader and of assuming that non-partisans share their antipathy. They have to remember that just because Canadians might see him differently does not mean that voters will automatically prefer what they see when they look to Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh.

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In 2015, Mr. Trudeau had the luxury of campaigning as a symbol, as a cause. In 2019, he will have to campaign as a candidate. That will make for a different kind of election – and a different kind of Trudeau.

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