Trudeau’s Challenging Cakewalk

With victory almost assured, Trudeau can work on his form, rather than swing for the knock-out

Now that we have confirmation about what we’ve known all summer, and now that we’ve exhausted every conceivable boxing-is-politics metaphor, we can begin speculating about what the Justin Trudeau leadership campaign will look like. Names of some key players are beginning to leak out, but it will likely be months before we truly get a sense of the type of campaign Trudeau plans to wage.

What we do know is that it will be a campaign like none before, simply because Justin Trudeau is a leadership candidate like none before. There has never been a frontrunner this popular who has accomplished so little in his life. I know that sounds like a nasty dig, but the fact that Trudeau finds himself in this position despite a thin resume speaks to just how impressive a politician he is. It’s not just the name – he’s immensely good at what he does.

So how then do you run the campaign of a political superstar who is adored for who he is, not for what he has done?

The easiest road for frontrunners to take is keeping a low profile and avoiding controversy like the plague. Yes, Jim Dinning’s “pro sunshine” campaign for the Alberta PC crown in 2006 exploded in a supernova, but playing it safe works out more often than not.

A variant on this strategy is the tactic employed by Justin’s father in 1968 and Barack Obama in 2008 – pick one big idea (“Just Society”, “Yes We Can”), but focus on photo-ops rather than policies. I’m sure the temptation among many in the Trudeau inner circle will be to position him as the hopey-changey candidate, take a few shots at Stephen Harper, but keep the tone as light as possible. Justin may not have a plan to make the Liberals relevant in Alberta but, look, he’s rock climbing! Justin may not have a position on supply management but, look, he’s churning butter with a class of grade 4 students!

I have no doubt that type of air war, paired with a well run ground game, would lead to a first ballot victory in April. But the unique challenge of this campaign is that the definition of “winning” is not necessarily getting more votes than his nearest competitor. If Trudeau crawls across the finish line with his reputation damaged, the party brand weakened, and the party divided, it’s game over for the Liberal Party.

With Trudeau’s objective re-defined as victory over Stephen Harper rather than victory over Marc Garneau, the wishy-washy rockstar campaign begins to look less appealing. We all know attack ads are coming, and we don’t need to see Conservative Party focus group reports to know these ads will try to brand Justin Trudeau as an airhead and a lightweight (or as Andrew Coyne put it on The National: “flibbertigibbet“). If Trudeau wants to erase this caricature before it is drawn, the leadership race is the perfect venue to do that. We know the media will hover on every word Justin says over the next six months, so he’d be foolish to not take advantage of the microphones that will be in front of his face.

My advice to Justin would therefore be to use the leadership race as a chance to re-explain to Canadians who he is and what he stands for. That will mean sticking his neck out and taking controversial stands, but he’s better off doing that now than after the honeymoon wears off. There’s nothing wrong with photo-ops, but if he’s petting cute animals the caption should be that Justin is talking to farmers about his plan to save the family farm. If he’s kissing babies, the caption should be that he’s announcing his child care policy. I know it’s easier to have him somersault into swimming pools and shoot hoops with Young Liberals, but there’s no point in holding any campaign event that doesn’t help write the narrative of Justin Trudeau as a man of substance. I don’t know which anonymous Liberals are quoted in today’s CBC article, but no one on the Trudeau campaign should be referring to him as “the American Idol candidate” – even if it’s in the most flaterring terms.

So when a divisive issue comes up, Justin will need to take a principled stand, even if he alienates some of his caucus supporters in the process. When Justin is asked about Deborah Coyne or Martha Hall Findlay’s latest policy paper, it’s not simply enough to shower platitudes about “studying the issue”. When he’s challenged to explain his position, he can’t smile and tell reporters to wait for the next election.

In politics, it’s almost always easier to win when you play to your strengths. And because politics is about winning, politicians rarely have opportunities to work on their weaknesses. Since Justin Trudeau is almost assured to be the next Liberal leader, rather than running up the score he’d be wise to use the next six months to grow as a politician, re-defining himself as a thinker, and re-defining what the Liberal Party stands for in the process.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in --- 2013 LPC Leadership Race, Featured Posts, Federal Politics

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at and online at the National Post.

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8 Responses to Trudeau’s Challenging Cakewalk

  1. Jordan

    I hope he doesn’t get on with that progressive bullshit. I’d like to see him talk about liberalism.

  2. JamesF

    I really think it ought to be a hybrid of what you propose and the “rockstar” campaign.

    I think it’s actually kind of foolish to take a candidate with the personal magnatism of Justin Trudeau and bore him down with dry policy. If you talk to much about the “how” now you just open him up to being attack ad’ed about the how (Ex: Dion’s “tax on everything”) or attacked as a flipflopper if you change your mind witht he times.

    Also the election is two years from now… I’m not sure I want the next leader painting himself into a policy minutia niche now when the climate might be vastly different when the general election comes around. I’d rather the leadership campaign be about the “what” with the general election campaign being about the “how”.

    • CalgaryGrit

      You obviously can’t give it all away now, but I think it’s important for Justin to show some substance and depth. Even if he only picks a few issues to demonstrate this.

      • Jim R

        For those of us who don’t find rock-star status being the be-all and end-all, it is essential that Trudea show not just some substance and depth, but rather significant substance and depth. Should an aspiring PM really demonstrate any less? Especially one with a rather light resume.

        [If the LPC really turns what should be a vetting process into a coronation, then it should not come as a surprise if ensuing events turn out less than spectacularly.]

      • Marc from soccer

        Agreed. The complaint will always be that he’s more about his famous last name than he is about personal substance – regardless of whether that is accurate or not – so to pull out the rock star card now would only play into that. He needs to show the party and voters that he’s serious.

  3. Nuna D. Above

    The safe Liberal seats in Atlantic Canada are going to be less important with the addition of 30 new seats to the House of Commons. The west is going to be hard for the Liberals to capture. Quebec? Was Mulcair part of the Bourassa government when Pierre Trudeau and his followers killed Meech Lake? That would give him an emotional and powerful talking point in Quebec.
    Anyone who looks at Marc Garneau’s record and would choose Trudeau as leader is a ditzy airhead. But after two failures with academics, maybe the Liberals do want the American Idol route.

    • Marc from soccer

      I think he came in in the mid 1990s so he wasn’t in politics at that time.

    • Vancouverois

      1) No, Mulcair didn’t become an MNA until 1994, after the failures of both Meech Lake and Charlottetown. I’m sure Mulcair will still try to use it against the Liberals – and Liberals should fight back, starting by disproving the lies he promotes in his version of the Patriation of the Constitution. This country needs politicians who will take separatism head on instead of catering to it – that will win support in both Quebec and the other provinces.

      2) Having seen Garneau in debate (he’s my MP), I do not understand why people say he’s dull or uncharismatic. I think he’s a skilled politician, and definitely fluent in both official languages; two necessary qualities that were lacking in the past two Liberal leaders.

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