Justin Trudeau has got to be hoping the adage “like father, like son” applies to election campaigns.
His electoral path thus far has been a carbon copy of that forged by his late father, Pierre, some 50 years ago and Liberals are hoping the pattern will hold now as Trudeau seeks a third mandate.
Father and son both rode a wave of giddy Trudeaumania to secure a strong majority in their first elections as Liberal leader, in 1968 and 2015 respectively.
Once in office, both inevitably fell short of unrealistic expectations and accumulated baggage that further took the bloom off the rose. Disappointed Canadians reduced both their governments to minority status in their second electoral outings, in 1972 and 2019.
Trudeau Sr. stormed back with a comfortable majority in his third election in 1974 – a feat his son hopes to emulate on Sept. 20.
It remains to be seen whether Justin Trudeau can accomplish that feat or even hang on to a minority. But historian John English says the unanticipated international crisis seemed to give him a “second wind” – just as it did for his father.
Trudeau Sr. was seen as having competently managed a global economic crisis sparked by skyrocketing oil prices and the United States fully abandoning the gold standard, says English, a former Liberal MP and official biographer of Pierre Trudeau.
Similarly, Justin Trudeau’s popularity, which nosedived in the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin affair in 2019, rebounded as he steered the country through the deadly and economically devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trudeau has gone through the crisis and maybe he doesn’t get an A-plus but he doesn’t get a D or a C,” English says.
At the outset of the campaign, he looked like an effective leader “in enough people’s eyes” that re-election, be it with a minority or a majority, seemed likely, he adds.
But unlike his father, who plunged into the 1974 campaign only after his minority government was defeated by opposition parties in the House of Commons, Trudeau pulled the plug on his own government just as a fourth wave of COVID-19 was picking up steam across the country.
And that seems to have generated a backlash that has cost Trudeau, at least initially, much of the goodwill built up during the pandemic.
Heading into the campaign, pollster David Coletto says Trudeau was in a “much stronger position” than in 2019.
The proportion of Canadians who viewed him favourably was higher, the government’s approval rating was higher and almost half of Canadians thought the country was headed in the right direction, Coletto says.
Even so, there was no resurgence of Trudeaumania.
The opening weeks of the campaign have demonstrated that those who do hate Trudeau, do so with an intensity that some Liberal MPs quietly say has surprised them on the doorsteps.
Foul-mouthed protesters have dogged Trudeau’s footsteps, screaming obscenities and accusing him of treason and other crimes, some brandishing signs showing the Liberal leader being hanged.
Trudeau himself has said he’s never seen that kind of intensity of anger, not even when he was travelling decades ago with his polarizing father in Western Canada, where Pierre Trudeau was vilified.
Back in 2015, Justin Trudeau was the fresh, young, hip face of Canadian politics. Today, at 49, he’s the old man among national political leaders hitting the hustings. (Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, whose party field candidates only in Quebec, is older at 56).
The burden of governing combined with self-inflicted wounds – being found twice to have breached ethics rules, for instance, or the revelation during the 2019 campaign that he’d donned blackface several times in earlier years – have taken their toll.
Trudeau, who campaigned on “sunny ways” in 2015, is no longer viewed as someone who will do politics differently, says Coletto. While he’s still largely perceived as being progressive, there’s a sense that his government doesn’t always act on its purported progressive values – a vulnerability NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, currently the most popular federal leader, has been able to exploit.
Trudeau himself reflected on that with surprising candour during an appearance at Ryerson University’s Democracy Forum in June.
“I’ll be honest, a progressive Liberal party like ours has a hard time going against the progressive idealist parties that can say, ‘No, we should just change capitalism. Yes, everyone will sign up for that. We’d make it more fair. Yes, we should stop having an army. Yes, we should just shut down the oilsands tomorrow … or yes, we should just fix reconciliation in a weekend,’” he mused.
“It’s easy to say those things, much harder to put in the effort of doing them … A lot of people, not just young people, everyone wants the quick fix. Like, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
In what may have been a veiled jab at Singh, who is known for his effective use of social media, or simply a reflection on his own political evolution since 2015, Trudeau told students to “get away from (thinking) politics is cool and trendy and here I am on Instagram on my bicycle.” He told them to instead consider “the tough, hard work that we’re doing to actually bend the curve towards justice.”
But if Trudeau has lost the allure of being the trendy, fresh face in politics, he has, says English, gained the advantage of experience.
“He has matured, he’s learned a lot about politics.”
And, unlike his notoriously aloof father, English says he actually seems to thrive on campaigning and meeting people.
There again, however, calling an election in the midst of a pandemic is coming back to haunt Trudeau, limiting crowd sizes, impeding his ability to connect personally with voters and bringing out furious anti-vaccination protesters.
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This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.