Eight questions about Justin Trudeau

Conservatives have been salivating for a crack at Trudeau, says Jason Lietaer. 'Now we get our chance'

Justin Trudeau’s leadership run has been decades in the making.  Most of us knew we’d end up here about 12 years ago.  Looking back, I remember Oct. 3, 2000 very well.  I was in “issues management” in Mike Harris’ office in Ontario. I was pretty confident there weren’t going to be any real issues to manage – it was the day of Pierre Trudeau’s funeral.

A group of conservative staffers in Toronto were watching the funeral on TV as we absentmindedly did our work. At one point, a young man took the podium, and – overcome with grief – gave a speech that sent most Liberals into what I would call a melancholy frenzy. It was passionate and heartfelt and interesting – everything a good eulogy should be.  I was really, really sad for this guy I didn’t know because he’d lost his father. But, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I sat there thinking the speech was more than a little melodramatic and just a little too much about him.

See, that’s the thing with Justin Trudeau, and ultimately his challenge. He’s polarizing. I felt guilty about thinking the way I did about his speech on what must have been an awful day.  I still feel a little bad about it today. But what I couldn’t see from my biased perch was the way the eulogy would be received in Liberal circles and in most of the media.  It was a smash. Full of charisma and panache. I remember people openly musing he would be Prime Minister someday. He was not yet 30. It woke me up a bit to the fact you can’t always trust your own eyes on this stuff.

He’s a genuine Canadian celebrity in a way that not many other people are – famous inside our borders, well known in every street corner, hamlet, town and city. Not quite Wayne Gretzky or Rick Mercer, perhaps, but at least Gord Downie or Claude Giroux. Women go crazy for him…I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Just the other day, a client of mine asked me “for his wife” to set up a lunch with Trudeau. I laughed and told him the price just went up.

Back in 2000, it would have been hard to predict the Liberal party would be where it is today. Broken, broke, weakened, and consigned to small pockets of the country. It needs a turnaround. And the fundamental truth is that Justin Trudeau has both the biggest possible ceiling and the lowest potential floor of any Canadian political candidate in history.   Literally any scenario is on the table here, ranging from majority government to leading the party to a quick extinction.

After the initial Trudeaumania dies down (and it will), some questions:

Can Trudeau show some substance? 

When he’s not boxing, he looks like a lightweight. He’s been given junior jobs by his bosses: Associate Critic for Youth….Critic for Youth, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism…noticeably absent from the resume: “Finance Critic.” Given that the next election is most likely to feature a debate on resources, jobs and the economy, he’s got some serious work to do.

How will Quebec react?  And what about the West?

His father has political legacies everywhere – some good, and some not so good. Will Quebeckers support their native son, or see him as some sort of “centralisateur”? Quebec is so unpredictable right now that I don’t think any of us knows. And what of the West? To win, the Liberal party has to win some seats west of Kenora and east of Vancouver. Can the son of the man who proposed the National Energy Program pull it off? Can westerners ever trust this guy to defend the oil sands both inside and outside our borders?

What will men think?

When they do poorly, the Liberals have a historic gender gap: their support amongst men significantly lags that of women. It’ll take more than fancy hair and a mischievous grin to get guys like my buddies or my dad to vote for you. On the other hand, there are certainly some that long for the Trudeau years and love the mystique. How will it break?  Nobody knows.

How will it affect the NDP?

Don’t let their determined smiles fool you – the NDP knows Trudeau is a serious threat to its new-found success. Trudeau might not be humble enough to employ a “two-election” strategy, but if he were able to keep his ambition in check and prove himself, he could definitely overtake the NDP for second place. And would his leadership put an end to ongoing discussion between the two parties about merging or co-operating? I imagine so for two reasons: his arrogance and the NDP’s dislike for him specifically. Hard to imagine Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair negotiating a truce.

Will Conservatives be able to keep their emotions in check?

This is a big one. Many conservatives are over-confident about Trudeau, and certainly are itching to take a round out of him. The spectacle with Senator Brazeau proved it’s easier said than done. I prefer an attitude of healthy respect and fear when sizing up any opponent, but it’ll be tough to keep our instincts in check with Trudeau. The challenge here will be for Conservatives to assess him through the eyes of others, not themselves. Too often, political parties can’t see the allure of their opponent (it happens now with the left: some can’t believe anyone could like Stephen Harper). We must remember to see Trudeau how average Canadians see him and take away those perceived strengths.

Can he handle the glare and pressure?

True story: the first time I met Justin Trudeau, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. His first words were “Do you want a picture”? I just about spit out my drink as I laughed and said no.  He’s used to cameras on him, but now it’s gonna be a little different. He’s had some goofy moments (being mocked for speaking two languages in the same sentence) and some real missteps (attacking the government for using the word “barbaric” to describe honour killings). Political campaigns are not a walk in the park. He’s handled some stern challenges before (winning and holding a really tough riding under difficult circumstances). But he’s going to have to grow up in a hurry and he will be tested like never before.

Will he be able to sustain the frenzy of new supporters?

I think it’s safe to say that Trudeau will energize a new group of younger voters, especially out of the gate. Just look: HE’S HUGE ON TWITTER!!! He’s young, brash, and talks like them.  The question is will he be able to sustain it? Will all the people who “join” the Liberal party to elect him leader be there for the general election?  If they can’t even be bothered to take out a $10 membership card, will they be there when he needs them?

Will he change the Liberal party for the better?

The recent Liberal party has shunned the hard work of rebuilding a political party and standing for something for the quick fix… the savior…the easy route…seemingly always believing that this shiny handsome new leader can return them to past glories and RETAKE THEIR PLACE AS THE NATURAL GOVERNING PARTY, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

Oh, wait a second….

You know, Conservatives like me have been salivating for years over the chance to have our crack at this guy – maybe to exercise the demons of the past, maybe because he just rubs us the wrong way.   Well now, it appears that we’re going to get our chance.  My gut tells me we’ll have our work cut out for us.  My goal is simple: to show everybody that this is not the second coming of Camelot and there is no happy ending to this epic fairy tale. We will demonstrate that Canada still needs a leader who actually doesn’t care if he has his picture taken or which celebrities he may meet, but just wants to get the job done. I think we’ll succeed.  ust watch us.

Jason Lietaer is a communicator and strategist with Ensight Canada, specializing in strategic branding, crisis management, communication and political and marketing campaigns. During the 2011 federal election, he headed the Conservative Party’s war room.