Difference from others Trudeau’s key asset
SPEND enough time listening to politicians, and at some point it becomes hard to believe they believe what they are saying.
Political reporters know this moment. We have been conditioned to accept flowery, idealistic rhetoric as one of the base commodities of retail politics. And in most instances, we reporters accept politicians mostly believe what they are saying at that moment they say it. Even if political reality later makes that rhetoric mostly empty.
There are many of those “does he really believe that” moments when you listen to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. If flowery rhetoric was an Olympic sport, Trudeau would be the current defending gold medallist. Those skills were on full display Saturday afternoon in Winnipeg when he delivered the leader’s keynote address to the Liberal biennial policy convention.
As has frequently been noted, Trudeau has the raw charisma of the lead singer of a rock band. When he delivers a prepared speech, he has all the polish and flair of an experienced method actor. The tilt of his head, the timing of his jokes and the way he punctuates his sentences with the right animated expressions — these are the hallmarks of a political performer the likes of which we have never seen.
But more important than the charisma and style that is Trudeau is different.
He was profoundly different than the other political leaders he faced in last fall’s federal election. He remains different than any of the contenders who seek to lead the Conservatives and NDP into the next election. The contrast between Trudeau and just about everyone else who might challenge him for the right to govern is dramatic and — more importantly — relevant for voters.
All those things that make Trudeau different were on full display at the Winnipeg convention. He arrived late for his midday speech in rolled-up shirtsleeves and tie loosened. He told jokes, applauded his caucus and the volunteers who helped get them elected and even took time to thank former prime minister Stephen Harper for his service to Canada. It was an oddly poignant moment when Trudeau got to praise, and bury, a man who was the perfect electoral foil. Trudeau needed to do little more than just stand beside Harper to show Canadians what “different” really meant.
Despite obvious signs “different” is a winning formula, the Conservatives and NDP continue to mock Trudeau for his ostentatious approach to leadership. All those public appearances, all the wading through crowds and selfies, all the things Trudeau does that previous prime ministers would never have done — it generates a deep, visceral disgust in NDP and Tory ranks. And with every disdainful comment, Trudeau’s opponents demonstrate how little they learned from the last election.
In the end, last October’s election proved just how important it was for the federal government to change the way it does business. Trudeau ultimately became the poster boy for that desire for change and was rewarded handsomely for it. In fact, he continues to be rewarded.
If opinion surveys are to be believed, the more Trudeau’s political enemies mock him, the more Canadians embrace him. This was true even after he briefly lost his mind in the House of Commons, grabbing a Tory MP and jostling an NDP MP immediately before a key vote on assisted-dying legislation. A poll taken in the immediate aftermath of that bizarre event showed Trudeau’s appeal continued on an upward trajectory.
Trudeau has been accused of upending traditional notions of what it means to be a political leader. In fact, Trudeau is simply proving creating contrast between himself and other parties and leaders makes him more appealing to a larger constituency of Canadians that includes both those who always vote and those who do not regularly vote, or who haven’t at all.
For many years, parties designed election strategies to capture the largest possible slice of the electorate that actually showed up to vote. Older people vote in huge numbers, and as a result, campaign pledges and policies reflected priorities that appealed to those older voters.
Every once in a while, a party or leader would make noises about offering a new brand of politics and more contemporary policies in a bid to attract younger voters, or aboriginal Canadians, or those who’ve turned their back on mainstream politics. But in the heat of an electoral battle, most of those parties and leaders defaulted to more traditional lines of attack. The same was true when it was time to choose a new leader. Party members would flirt with someone espousing a different style and approach to politics before defaulting to the white, middleaged, male template.
Trudeau not only stuck to his plan to appeal to non-traditional constituencies within the electorate, he won many of them over. A flood of younger and aboriginal voters, in particular, contributed to the Liberal victory in fall 2015. Trudeau helped prove what had only been a theory up until that point: pledges and policies designed to attract non-voters could be a devastating electoral strategy.
Trudeau is a different kind of leader. There may come a point at which his ostentatious style will be seen as precious, or perhaps even tedious. Every politician accused of leading a wave of change ultimately reaches a point where he or she wears out their welcome and becomes as much of a liability as they were once an asset.
But that time is not now. For now, different is very good indeed.