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Opinion To change minds about Trudeau, Conservatives have to get over his glitz

The last time the federal Conservatives won an election, neither they nor most other Canadians had probably heard the word "selfie," let alone uttered it.

To help their chances of returning to power, they would do themselves a favour by expunging it from their vocabulary.

Attend a Conservative event – including this past spring's leadership convention – and you can scarcely go five minutes without hearing some snide reference to Justin Trudeau's celebrity status. If not "selfie" – which technically would mean the Prime Minister taking photos of himself, but tends to be used by the Tories as a catch-all for any time he poses in front of a camera – it will involve his looks, his clothes, his appearances in entertainment media. The implication, often meant to sound light-hearted but coming off as resentful, is that Canadians should see through his vanity to recognize him as too unserious to run the country.

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Read more: Conservatives say Trudeau's Rolling Stone cover jeopardizes NAFTA talks

It's easy to understand such sentiments and, lately, Mr. Trudeau seems to have been all but inviting them. His Rolling Stone cover appearance and the fawning prose of a reporter for the American magazine given better access than Canadian journalists who would ask tougher questions, epitomized much of what infuriates those who believe they have always seen through platitudinous virtue-signalling to recognize him as someone seeking out attention for its own sake. (Exhibit A: A Facebook response by prominent Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, complaining that politics is being reduced to "prince charmings who can do no wrong, all while flying through a rainbow on a unicorn," and that, to Mr. Trudeau, "image is everything.")

But whether or not Mr. Trudeau sets it deliberately, he keeps luring his rivals into a trap. Not that all criticism of the Rolling Stone appearance in particular is misguided: The quote from the PM suggesting an Indigenous senator made a good boxing foil is awful. It's just that whenever the Conservatives give the same tired reactions to the flash with which Mr. Trudeau markets himself, they wind up refighting a battle against him they have already lost, instead of paving the way for one they could win.

When governments lose power, it tends to be because they have betrayed their initial promise in some way – with scandal that disproves vows to do things differently, policies at odds with what they ran on, perceived lost touch with concerns of people with whom they once connected. Sometimes it's because their agendas, once implemented, had unintended consequences that made people's lives more difficult, or because they lacked competence to effectively implement them.

Very rarely, unless the country's dynamics have changed dramatically, is it because they've turned out to be almost exactly what they appeared to be when voters elected them.

Mr. Trudeau did not hide during the last campaign that he is a flashy extrovert, prone to dramatic flourishes, less bashful than many Canadian politicians about embracing the spotlight; this is someone who did a photo op sparring in a boxing gym the morning of his first leaders' debate. Anyone who voted for his Liberals either embraced or accepted his showiness – and in the process, rejected the Conservatives' (and NDP's) argument that it proved Mr. Trudeau a lightweight.

If that sort of attack line didn't work when he was a third-party leader, it's extremely unlikely to be effective now that he's afforded the institutional respect that comes with running the government. But by giving the impression that they still can't believe that this guy beat them, the Tories keep acting as though variations of "nice hair, though" will prove a winner.

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That probably has something to do with positive reinforcement. Go to any social-media post criticizing Mr. Trudeau and you'll find a string of comments affirming that he's a glib idiot; attend a live event and you'll hear "selfies" mockery getting lots of laughs. There are millions of Conservative supporters in this country who think Mr. Trudeau is a joke.

The party's base is big enough that playing to that perception has upsides; it certainly hasn't hurt continually excellent fundraising numbers. But the more the Tories act as though other voters made a mistake by putting someone so self-evidently unsuitable in office, the more they pass up opportunities to build the case he is letting those voters down.

No doubt, some people who voted Liberal already feel that way – upset by Mr. Trudeau's about-face on electoral reform, slow pace in addressing urgent needs of Indigenous communities, much-larger-than-advertised budgetary deficit. But polls suggest the most oft-cited broken promises so far haven't been deal-breakers for enough voters to make the Liberals nervous, politically.

Where Mr. Trudeau may eventually have more cause for concern – what has stood out as his biggest challenge since the day he was elected – is meeting more ambiguous but still very high expectations for him as an economic change agent.

Other than his warmth relative to Stephen Harper's perceived coldness, Mr. Trudeau's main offer was to improve economic opportunity (for "the middle class, and those working hard to join it") in a way that a tired Conservative government would not. He has delivered or is in the process of delivering on specific promises in that regard, including tax changes and infrastructure spending. But there was always a modesty to his commitments, relative to rhetoric that accompanied them. And given the red ink his government is already spilling, it won't be easy for him to follow up something that may only have a marginal impact for many hard-pressed Canadians – changes to child benefits, for instance – with more ambitious versions.

Eventually, those who invested hope in Mr. Trudeau may look at what he's actually achieved for them and their communities and decide they're sufficiently underwhelmed to try their lot with someone else.

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At that point, maybe all the photo shoots and foreign adulation will grate on Mr. Trudeau's supporters, the same way that the speeches of great orators eventually become annoying if they haven't been able to convert their poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing.

But the opposition parties will have to help those Canadians along if they want them to get there one day.

That means painstaking, on-the-ground work building a case that life under the Liberals isn't all it was cracked up to be – and showing empathy, rather than contempt, for the sorts of people who these days would still very much like to take selfies of their own with the Prime Minister.

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