In the spring of 1968, Justin Trudeau’s father won a landslide in an national election against two tired-looking politicians who had what we now call ideological baggage. The people were bored with quarrels in what was Ottawa’s most productive Parliament, and Trudeau was bored too. He wasn’t interested in "politics," only practical answers and reason.
He was already prime minister. It was assumed that when the curtains closed, he huddled only with men and women with practical ideas. It was also thought to be a good thing that young people liked him; they seemed worryingly alienated at the time.
Justin Trudeau’s speech last night announcing his candidacy for the Liberal leadership was far too long to be compared to the brief beguiling performances of his father.
The father had no less self-regard, but he didn’t bother to spell out his virtues. Nor did he have a wife or surrogate to tell us of the “purity of his intentions.” It would have been too weird a statement to forget if Pierre Trudeau (rather than Justin) had said: “I love Montreal. I love Quebec. And I am in love with Canada. I love this country, and I want to spend my life serving it.”
Not being a professor or a born-again of any known persuasion, Justin may get away with lofty rhetoric. Fortunately for his campaign, he’s too high-strung and affable to be called another Michael Ignatieff or pompous.
Nevertheless, there’s a lurking vacuity and arrogance to what he offers.
Suggesting that the Liberal Party was made by Canadians rather than the other way around, that it sprung from the irrepressible Canadian soul and is not just another dogged concoction out to win power along with those “tidy ideologues” to Justin’s right and left, hardly signals a modest determination to engage in politics on the same playing field as other adults.
Being above the fray is a defensible start for a frontrunner’s leadership race; it may scare off serious opponents. But Justin Trudeau won’t be able to operate from up there when he fights to actually take power away from Stephen Harper and rank from Thomas Mulcair, first on the floor of the House of Commons and finally in a national election.
Throughout his long, brilliant career, Pierre Trudeau never succeeded in making a big idea exciting without having a fight, without taking on the serious arguments of the other side. Using patriotism and repeating stale partisan dog whistles like the “middle-class” and “evidenced-based policy-making” won’t work. If the Liberals and Justin Trudeau will not countenance a merger with the New Democrats, they must find something important they stand for that their opponents can’t.