Justin Trudeau for PM. No, seriously.

If this guy’s name was Joe Smith, he'd be a no-brainer for the Liberals

Liberal LEadership

The only time Justin Trudeau had for an interview on a recent Thursday was over breakfast at his Ottawa hotel. Under his suit jacket, the sleeve buttons on his dress shirt were undone. His necktie was knotted, but left loose over an open top button. His mane of black hair was tousled. Even in genteel disarray, even dressed more or less like a couple hundred of his parliamentary colleagues, the 40-year-old Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau looked like a million bucks.

I showed up late, slumped into a seat, ordered an omelette. I’ve known Trudeau for nine years, never well. Trudeau wondered why I’d convened this little meeting. “Your first note to me said you’d need three minutes to chat. Now it’s breakfast and your photo department is calling my office looking to take pictures. What’s up?”

There was no point beating around the bush. It’s not as though he hadn’t heard the question before.

“We’re preparing two stories. John Geddes is going to do a reported piece on the current state of the Liberal party. And I’m gonna write a piece wondering why Justin Trudeau isn’t running for the Liberal leadership.”

Trudeau’s eyes rolled and he half-smiled—here we go again. And then his face changed. He stared past the tabletop into the middle distance. His expression darkened. He looked stricken.

“Nobody knows better than I do what the pressures of party leadership can do to a young family,” he said. “It tore mine apart.”

He wasn’t yet six years old when his father and mother separated in 1977. Sacha was just short of four, Michel less than two.

Today Justin Trudeau and his wife, broadcaster Sophie Grégoire, have two children, Xavier, five, and Ella-Grace, three. As it stands, Trudeau’s career has him travelling often to raise money for his beleaguered party. He was in Kingston, Ont., the night before I met him. But at least now he gets to spend weekends in Montreal.

“I want to spend more time with my family” is, of course, the classic exit line for men and women who need to escape a career in politics. Coming from Trudeau, it sounds more definitive than that. “Just the investment in time . . . ” he said, his voice trailing off.

So it’s definitive then? Well, never say never. As he discusses the challenge facing any Liberal leader over the next few years—“Bob Rae or anyone else”—Trudeau becomes progressively more animated. For a guy who was raised at 24 Sussex Dr., he turns out to be surprisingly attracted to a fixer-upper.

Sure, for three [UPDATE: two, actually. Sorry about that — pw] elections in a row, in 2006, 2008 and 2011, the Liberals have broken their previous record for lowest-ever share of the popular vote. Sure, they’ve never had fewer MPs than the 34 who limped away from the debacle last May 2. (They’re up to 35 since Lise St-Denis defected from the NDP four months ago.) “All the reasons people give me why I shouldn’t be leader”—the long odds, the shattered aura of inevitability, the pressure from Conservatives and New Democrats consciously executing a squeeze play against the Liberals from either side—“those are the very reasons that make the whole idea tremendously exciting to me.”

And on top of everything else, there’s the tantalizing prospect of a chance to do something even his father never accomplished, if only because nobody in his father’s generation ever had to.

“Whatever else he did, Pierre Trudeau was not a re-inventor of the Liberal Party.”

So will he run? Not now. Probably not soon. But maybe not never. In the meantime perhaps some of you are wondering whether I’ve lost my mind for even raising the notion that Justin Trudeau could be cut out for something more than late-night talk radio. Isn’t he just a clothes horse? A legacy pledge?

And yet. Take the name out of things for a second. If this guy’s name was Joe Smith, the notion that Liberals might turn to him would be a no-brainer. He has won and won again in a riding the Bloc Québécois used to hold, in a province where the Liberals have been picked apart by the Bloc and then the NDP. He is effortlessly bilingual. When he stands in a room, conversation stops. In a party whose woes include a punishing inability to raise money commensurate with the challenges it faces, he is a fundraising machine.

As for the name, it binds Trudeau inextricably to an enduringly popular aspect of the Liberal legacy that Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, for their own reasons, won’t touch with a barge pole: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“People still think there’s sort of a debate around the Charter that politicos go into,” Trudeau said. “And I get wrapped up in it too from time to time. ‘Oh, Justin’s trying to defend his father’s legacy.’ The debate is done on the Charter. It defines Canadians. It defines Canada. People, even in Quebec, are 88 per cent supportive of the Charter, even if they get reminded every now and then, ‘We were left out of the Constitution!’ ” (The number comes from a CROP poll last autumn for Idée Fédérale, a Quebec federalist group.)

As Trudeau’s entire brief career has demonstrated—he was elected for the first time in 2008—everything about him, from his name to his grin, irritates a lot of people. As he has also shown again and again, those people are outnumbered by others who rather like him.

Since our breakfast was turning into a string of blunt questions, I gave him another. Is Justin Trudeau cut out for serious work?

“Listen. There are two groups of people out there. People who know me and who’ve worked with me and people who haven’t. That’s the only distinction that matters. What did people say when I said I would run for a hotly contested nomination in Papineau? ‘Ridiculous. He’ll never win.’

“And then against Vivian Barbot,” the popular Bloc incumbent? “ ‘Are you kidding? It’s impossible. He’s totally full of himself and delusional. He’ll never win.’

“Even in this silly boxing match, people said, ‘He’s so out of his depth, it’s ridiculous. He doesn’t even know what he’s doing.’ Somehow I keep being strangely lucky.”

The silly boxing match, of course, was his nationally televised charity fight against Patrick Brazeau, a young Conservative senator built like a brick wall. Brazeau came at Trudeau determined to take him apart. He left with a bloody nose after Trudeau won a TKO in the third round.

“He hit me with an abandon and a strength in those first moments that honestly I hadn’t felt before. It wasn’t painful. It was just surprising and disconcerting. I was like, ‘Okay. This is not the way it was supposed to go.’ And that was the only moment where I sort of went, ‘Okay. This might not have been as good idea as I thought it was.’ And then as soon as it started it stopped. Suddenly my counters were landing and he was sort of empty.”

And there were still two rounds left to fight. Trudeau’s height and reach advantage did the rest.

The only lesson from all of this for Trudeau’s political future, perhaps, is that he had trained for precisely this sort of confrontation, and that he had taken pains to ensure his confidence was earned. In Montreal he sparred with experienced boxers who were built like Brazeau, small and hard-packed. When Sophie started to think this was a bad idea, he invited her to come watch him prepare.

“My wife couldn’t get past the size of his arms, and just what a scary mofo he was. And that generally delighted me. But I told Sophie, ‘Look, come in and watch me train one time. I’ll take on someone who has the exact same build as Pat, a little more boxing experience, and I’ll show you that I can hold my own.’ No problem. So she eventually came around to trusting me on this.”

Brazeau went away disappointed. So, Trudeau thinks, did some of his own friends. “I think a lot of people close to me figured it was good because it would be a little lesson in humility for me.” No such luck.

But it isn’t aerobic endurance that Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were lacking when they went to the electoral mat in 2008 and 2011. It’s as though recent Liberal leaders have lost the key that used to unlock the Canadian electorate for generations of Liberal leaders. The current Liberal caucus, led for the moment by Bob Rae, seems barely coherent. Eleven of its MPs are from Ontario, 12 from the four Atlantic provinces. The party’s electorates in its last two strongholds have almost nothing to say to each other. Perhaps the Liberals have noticed this. The Conservatives sure have. The party is essentially defined at one end by the pieties of Cabbagetown sophisticates, at the other by the teetering economics of seasonal employment insurance.

“And a few anglos in Montreal who have no other choice,” Trudeau said with a smirk, extending the harsh analysis before his tone changed and he set about refuting it. “No. There’s more to the Liberal electorate than that, obviously. In our last election we got over 2½ million people across the country to vote for us. But where you fall into the trap of trying to identify the electorate is, if we were to start to focus that way, we’re already beaten.”

The Harper Conservatives are masters at identifying highly motivated slices of the electorate and appealing to them, Trudeau said. “And the choice the NDP made in Thomas Mulcair, while a smart choice in terms of getting someone who can be a counterweight to Stephen Harper, exacerbates that.”

For the Liberals to start sifting for their own highly motivated micro-electorates would be a mug’s game, Trudeau argues. “As I know from 30 years of fighting against sovereignists in Quebec, if you allow them to set the terms of the debate, you’ve already lost. And if the debate becomes about who can better identify the niche groups that are going to vote for you, the Conservatives have us beat. There’s no question about it. They have the information, they have the data, they have the capacity, they have the targeting, they have the networks, they have power. So they can do it.”

The alternative is to appeal to people across their narrow concerns. Trudeau claims to see, in last month’s surprise victory of Alison Redford’s arch-moderate Progressive Conservatives over Danielle Smith’s conservative Wildrose Alliance, the possibility that such an approach could work. “What we saw with the Alberta election is, mainstream Canadians, to use an imperfect word, are deeply worried. They woke up in Alberta. And that’s all it was. People woke up and said, ‘We’re not the lake-of-fire rednecks that people are painting us to be.’ Albertans are not that. Same people who voted for Naheed Nenshi,” the similarly none-too-conservative mayor of Calgary. “That was not an accident. Alberta has got, just like everyone, a tremendously strong set of ideas and values about Canadian diversity and Canadian strength. And the mainstream is just waiting to be not polarized and not made cynical.”

This may sound naive. It probably sounds naive. Trudeau hurried to sound less naive. “Any politician who’s going to overcome that cynicism has a huge job. I used to say in the last election that before we can convince Canadians that we have the best platform, we have to re-convince Canadians that politics should be in the business of shaping the future of Canada. And we didn’t get the first part done. People don’t believe that any politician is any different from any other one.”

So how, precisely, would a weakened and internally incoherent Liberal party do better next time? “My sense is that leaders will not be able to do it alone. It has to be led from a movement, a team that involves more than just the leader. A lot of strong voices that remove the emphasis a little bit on leader.”

So it would involve the Hypothetical Nameless Future Liberal Leader, with Justin Trudeau at his or her side? “Yes. I plan on being extremely visible in the next few years. But almost in a way of de-emphasizing that focus on leadership that we have.”

So the rail-thin, lion-maned clothes horse with dimples like moon craters, a giant-killing right hook and a weapons-grade surname will position himself as the loyal helpmate of a post-leadership-fixation Liberal Party? It’s so crazy it just might work.

“One of the things I said publicly when we first appointed Bob Rae to be interim leader and people said, ‘Oh, do you think he’s going to stick to it?’—I said it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. If we don’t have a leadership candidate who can hold Bob to his promise, or defeat Bob, then we need Bob to be the leader. It’s a self-regulating system.”

By the same logic, of course, if Bob Rae isn’t cut out to be the leader, and it really is a self-regulating system, somebody else should move into the slot. Justin Trudeau is three years younger than Stephen Harper was when Harper became leader of the Canadian Alliance. But he won’t entertain the possibility that his time is near.

What does Sophie think of all this? “She is my toughest critic, no doubt. She holds me in check and keeps me grounded, every step of the way. Pretty much whenever I make the newspapers or I’m trending, and people across the capital are rolling their eyes, saying ‘What did Justin Trudeau do now?’ you know I’m getting an earful from my wife, who is inevitably upset. Or concerned.”

People used to say she should be the one in politics, not him. “She is in politics. She really dislikes politics. Intensely. Her sense of service is as finely tuned as mine is, in the sense of giving to this country and this world that has given so much to us. But most days she’d rather I was running an NGO than sitting in this House. I have to keep telling her and reminding her—and reminding myself—that the biggest NGO, pick whichever one you want, is still at the mercy and whim of sovereign governments and parliaments.”

So the most prominent Liberal in the country remains an admirer of governments’ ability to get things done. His faith in the ability of the Canadian people to rise above difference, to perceive and work toward an agreed-upon notion of the common good, remains. He’s fascinated by the challenges his party faces. He’s genetically connected to the last distinct brand advantage his party has, the Charter of Rights. And he’s shown a knack for surprising victories against long odds.

There’s an obvious solution to all this. But Justin Trudeau says it’s not his time. Yet.

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