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.