Do we all owe Marc Garneau an apology?

Did defeated Liberal leadership candidate expose our emptiness?

Jonathan Kay suggests Marc Garneau’s defeat is a defeat for idealistic pundits (and possibly a mark of shame on the entire nation).

Pity Marc Garneau. We said we wanted a serious intellectual promoting serious policy ideas. He was brilliant enough to fit the role perfectly. And naïve enough to think we actually meant it.

Alice Funke, meanwhile, suggests Mr. Garneau never fulfilled the promise of substantiveness that he made.

Kay could have probably written the same thing about Michael Ignatieff in May 2011 or Stephane Dion in October 2008. But then he wouldn’t have been able to say that voters chose instead to fall in love with a sexy, charismatic pop idol. (In fact, in three consecutive elections, a plurality of voters has chosen a party led by a relatively unexciting policy wonk who likes to remind people that he studied economics.)

How bold and smart and interesting was Mr. Garneau’s policy platform? Most of the major themes—high-speed Internet access, post-secondary education, assisting small business, engaging with China and India—were included in the Liberal party’s 2011 platform. Gender equality was a priority for Stephane Dion. Electoral reform has long been a pledge of the NDP. The details of Mr. Garneau’s plans might have differed from these previous proposals, but he was not quite revolutionary in his general direction (though opening the telecommunications sector up to foreign investment might count as a bold proposal).

Were Mr. Garneau’s policy proposals so great that Liberals should have flocked to his campaign? I suppose you could try to make that argument, but it requires more than the simple equation that he who proposes more policy should win.

He was, undoubtably, the first astronaut to seek the leadership of a major federal political party. But politics is not a matter of submitting your resume. Nor should it be. And while our democracy might not yet be a perfect meritocracy—or, rather, its results might not correspond perfectly with the specific merits we would like it to—succeeding at democracy is of some merit in and of itself.

Perhaps Mr. Garneau better fits some particular idea of what we wish we had. But then maybe someone like Bob Rae or John Manley—who also have impressive resumes and might have proposed more policy—could have beaten Mr. Trudeau. Maybe, as Alice suggests, Mr. Garneau simply didn’t run a good enough campaign. Other than being an astronaut and proposing some specific policies, is there any particular reason voters should have rushed to Mr. Garneau’s candidacy?

Don’t we also wish our politics could be more interesting and inspiring? Conceivably that—in addition to the prospect of electoral success that Mr. Trudeau represents—accounts for much of his appeal.

All things considered, Mr. Trudeau’s likely victory doesn’t seem so much a defeat for the idea of smarter politics as it is a testament to the power of being interesting to people and then being able to harness that interest, especially in a relatively small and sequestered campaign. And, with a decided advantage in that regard—indeed as a uniquely interesting candidate with a rather unique ability to quickly appeal to people—he did not need to use specific policy proposals to generate support (though he did not entirely shy away from acknowledging the affairs of the nation). Many supporters, of course, were likely drawn to that simple prospect of success that Mr. Trudeau seemed to present. If pundits thought Mr. Trudeau was a better choice for the Liberals, it was probably for the same reason.

He will presumably have to present a policy platform and regularly opine reasonably on the issues of the day over the next two years if he is to lead the Liberals to a good result in the next election. If he continues to be light on policy—or, even better, if he proposes a series of blindingly dumb ideas—and still wins the next election, then, perhaps, it will be time to lament for the profound emptiness at the heart of our democracy. Until then, it is probably more reasonable to conclude that a more charismatic candidate with a better political machine simply bested a slightly above average politician with a good resume and a more specific policy platform in a middling race to see who will lead a desperate party that has fallen very far in the last decade. Which is to say, I’m not sure this qualifies as a referendum on the nation’s soul.