After Donald Trump was defeated by President-elect Joe Biden, but before Trump had emotionally processed this fact, Justin Trudeau gave a press conference. The prime minister was asked if he spoke “too early” in congratulating Biden and what he could do about Trump’s refusal to admit. He was pleased to congratulate the new president and had full confidence in the American electoral system, Trudeau said, and his administration would work with the current administration by the end of January, by which time they would work with the new one.
“President Biden will be my third American president as soon as he takes office,” said Trudeau. “We have shown that we can stand up and defend Canadian interests, which we will do as we move forward.”
It was something new – even disturbing – to hear this Prime Minister point out that during his time in the Oval Office he had seen three inmates come and go, like an old captain blinking dispassionately at another sunset with no surprises in store .
READ: A Biden-Trudeau partnership takes real work
Compare this to the end of 2013 when Trudeau was the new Liberal leader and then Prime Minister Stephen Harper and began putting his people to the Tory firmament for an election 18 months into the future. Far from resenting the idea of running against a man who had won three straight elections, Trudeau was delighted to face Harper as his team intended to make the election a stark contrast. as he put it at the time: “I need old.”
It’s a reasonable bet that there will be a federal election in 2021. And whether Trudeau calls, coerces, or allows whatever he thinks is a opportune moment, he will do so as a grizzled veteran, not a boisterous prodigy. Trudeau enters his 50th year on Christmas Day 2020, making him the oldest of his competitors, if only 13 months ahead of conservative leader Erin O’Toole. That was true during the 2019 campaign as well, but this time around, Trudeau will be a skilled hand in a field of fresh faces, with O’Toole and Greens leader Annamie Paul each leading their parties through their first campaigns while NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is at the top of his second but retains a freshman quality.
Whenever the poll takes place, Old Man Trudeau and a pack of newbies will be on the trail.
It’s an odd role for a man who won the Liberals majority in 2015 through a surge of energy, uprising, and change, and whose entire existence as a national politician has focused on youthfulness – for the better (exuberance, idealism, the ambitious upward trend of self-confident optimism) and for the worse (self-righteousness, cliquity, the creeping disadvantage of self-confident optimism).
And the shift goes way beyond flat branding. Many of the promises and actions most clearly associated with the Trudeau administration’s new approach have evaporated or congealed.
The electoral reform is dead in the water. Trudeau’s demand that the government be “open by default” has become a gateway to an information system so backward and unruly that it is inconsistent with the Information Commissioner’s own decision on a complaint, forcing Caroline Maynard to comply with her unanswered requests for “strong leadership” and more resources to keep your system working. Before the end of the year, the Liberal government should announce climate legislation that aims to bring Canada to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, the draft law is intended to contain “binding goals” without an enforcement mechanism. Canada failing to meet its climate goals is an ongoing problem that existed long before the Trudeau Liberals, but it would be a singularly poor accomplishment for a government that has made action against climate change and adherence to scientific advice central to its mission .
In the minority parliamentary chicken game in which the Conservatives demanded a dump truck full of documents and charter to call witnesses related to the October WE charity scandal, Trudeau’s response, calling her bluff successful, was a veterans move with Flint eyes.
“Facing an opposition threat without giving a reason is not the job of a political inventor,” said John Duffy, longtime liberal advisor and founder of StrategyCorp.
READ: When it comes to the climate, Justin Trudeau is finally all in
For Duffy, a politician’s best before date is determined in large part by some sort of dance between the vision of the land a leader offers and the place where citizens are or want to be. Trudeau has long embodied a Canada with traits like legalized cannabis, clear support for LGBTQ + people and gender equality, democratic reforms and serious action against climate change, he says, and many voters felt that the country was and was already there Stephen Harper’s government wasn’t very strong. “2015 was magical,” says Duffy. “One reason for the magical reason was that Trudeau could embody, project, and promise a version of Canada that I thought many people thought was overdue.”
What happens to most governments who are good at staying in power is that at some point the relationship will tip over and the government has passed its prime and becomes a regression from which people are willing to move on.
“I don’t see any party that has an offer that dwarfs Trudeau’s fundamental characteristic, which is that it’s timely,” says Duffy.
That’s probably as far as it goes, but there is more than one direction you can travel in that you end up not keeping up with the country.
And O’Toole’s strategy for the campaign, whenever it begins, makes it clear that his camp relies on an entirely different kind of mismatch between leadership and national sentiment.
There are two key contrasts with Trudeau that O’Toole’s team would like to spotlight. The first is that he’s a pure suburbanite – he grew up in the suburbs, lives there now, represents suburbanites – which is a proxy for being middle class and understanding the problems of normal people who are not with a millionaire father Prime Minister grew up. The second trait O’Toole will point out to voters is his military service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which is designed to demonstrate patriotism, duty, and leadership, but also an ability to prove yourself based on your loyalty and job performance alone. The first contrast is the one that former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer vigorously tried to exploit in 2019, but the second contains a page from the Stephen Harper playbook that looks for elements of Canadian patriotism that may belong to the Conservatives, if the Liberals are trying to wrap themselves in the flag.
More specifically, these two facets of O’Toole speak in favor of attempting to offer very mature, in-depth, old-school leadership that is in line with the Tory strategy of adding labor to its electoral base. Class people who do not normally vote in elections.
In mid-November, Angus Reid found that Trudeau’s personal approval rating had risen from a slump in the mid-1940s to 49 percent in the summer while the WE controversy raged. Two-thirds of Canadians believe the Liberal government has done a good job with COVID-19, and that opinion has remained constant since the spring.
A quarter of Canadians said they had no opinion on O’Toole in one way or another, but that was a 39 percent decrease immediately after taking the lead two months earlier. During this time, his rating of favorability rose by six points to 36 percent, but his unfavorability also rose by nine points to 40 percent. Singh is rated positively by 49 percent of Canadians, compared to 41 percent who dislike him, while 50 percent say they have no opinion about Paul.
But if the poll shows a picture of a prime minister running into a field of question marks if the campaign started tomorrow, O’Toole’s camp says this is both expected and not a problem.
Tory research shows that while Trudeau’s personal brand is still quite strong, its weaknesses lie in the “old liberal claims problem” where SNC-Lavalin is bigger in focus groups than WE Charity, along with unreliability and disappointment, a Tory Strategist who spoke about it says background. “I am convinced that you will not be able to – I have believed since he became a leader in 2013 – to make people dislike Trudeau, except for people who identify as conservatives. And you are not going to make people believe that he is in politics for the wrong reasons or being driven by the wrong things, ”they say. “But he is vulnerable in these three areas.”
The big political X-Factor, as it was generally in life last year, is the pandemic. “It’s not just a top-of-mind issue, it’s the lens through which you look at everything else,” says the conservative strategist.
For this reason, the battle plans for a likely election in 2021 are not drawn in anticipation of a battle for modernity or sympathy or even empathy or competence amid a crisis that is still developing. The point here is simply to ask voters to keep a steady hand behind the wheel in a storm that is still stormy.
This article appears in print in the January 2021 issue of Macleans Magazine, entitled “Old Man Trudeau”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.