There is that brief pause Justin Trudeau often takes before launching into his reply to a reporter’s question, followed by a little nod, an intake of breath, and a stock opening like, “Canadians expect their government to …”
Some Canadians will watch it and give it a mental thumbs up. Others never could stand Mr. Trudeau, anyway. And some large number of Canadians will roll their eyes even when they half-agree with what he says.
It’s that last portion who are making this election campaign a bigger challenge than the Liberals expected. Justin Trudeau is the Liberal campaign’s biggest asset, and its biggest liability.
Mr. Trudeau’s opponents know that – especially NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has based his campaign on it. It’s a peculiar thing, but at times you can hear the NDP Leader barely bothering to argue that his party’s policies are much different from the Liberals. Instead, Mr. Singh argues that unlike the Liberal Leader, he doesn’t just say those things, he believes them.
There has, after all, been so much Justin Trudeau in six years, through gender-equal cabinets “because it’s 2015,” globe-trotting summiteering and the SNC-Lavalin affair, to consoling families of an airline crash and pandemic news conferences every single day for months. Other prime ministers were in the news, but none was so constantly on the public stage.
So the Justin Trudeau who came to power with a rock-star aura in 2015 now has a political persona that has burned through its glory days. His power to inspire has faded. His power to convince has weakened, as more see him as a standard politician, and more question which views come from Mr. Trudeau and which come from the cold, cold heart of a political strategist crunching numbers at Liberal HQ.
But there is still a formidable campaigner there. Watch him on tour and you can see that on a level of pure political performance – speaking to the camera, finding the phrase, or handling and dodging reporters’ questions, then repeating it all back in another language – he is still without an equal in this campaign. There’s no one waiting in the wings of the Liberal Party who can match him on that, either.
He displays a personal warmth in public moments. His social media gets likes. He still has a valuable political brand, in the sense that some sizable minority wish him well.
But that magic doesn’t work as well, or on as many. In a campaign for which he hasn’t articulated a cause, he’s just a politician trying to get elected. Again.
Leave aside from this calculation the protesters showing up at his events. They’re gripped with rage, but a conspiratorial fringe.
Core supporters of Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives often revile Mr. Trudeau, but they probably didn’t like him even in 2016, when opinion polls consistently found well over 50 per cent considered the Liberal Leader their preferred choice to be PM.
But Mr. Trudeau’s power to reach and sway non-partisans has surely weakened. Perhaps more importantly for the outcome of the election, it has probably weakened with some of the progressive voters the Liberals are targeting.
The NDP certainly thinks that’s the case; they are using it in a shrewd campaign tactic.
Mr. Singh plays on the disillusionment of left-leaning voters with Mr. Trudeau. When a Radio-Canada interviewer asked him why voters should choose the NDP when its policies are nearly the same as those of the Liberals, Mr. Singh’s answer was that Mr. Trudeau mouths “pretty words” while for the NDP “they are convictions.” Mr. Singh is not comparing himself to Mr. Trudeau on policy, but authenticity.
If you look back, it’s hard to buy Mr. Singh’s argument that Mr. Trudeau’s government hasn’t done anything progressive voters wanted. He moved Liberals to the left, spending big, funding Indigenous services and child benefits, introducing a carbon price, and pouring out massive pandemic benefits. The Liberals tout their 2021 platform as the most “progressive” a governing party has presented. But then Mr. Singh can point to a broken promise on electoral reform, or the purchase of a pipeline.
More than that, he plays on an idea that he knows now has power: that Mr. Trudeau is just a politician, spinning the same words for too long, thinking mostly about getting re-elected. In an election without a driving cause, the Liberals are effectively running on the strength of Mr. Trudeau’s brand, but that’s also their biggest weakness.
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