He's smart, he's talented — but Justin Trudeau is not ready to redeem the Liberals
OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau should, after a suitable period of introspection, politely thank those who would have him press-ganged into taking on the Liberal leadership. Then he should tell them to heave off. And enjoy the summer.
He's not ready. Neither is the Liberal Party of Canada.
This latest effort to resurrect Trudeau-mania, prompted by Bob Rae's decision to bow out of the leadership rather than fight like a junkyard dog over the scraps of power, is manic. Trudeau says he's under intense pressure to run. That can only grow now that he's opened the door. But this is a mug's game. The effort to drive the 40-year-old to jump before his time is a sign, not of his suitability, but of the party's desperation. Through three election cycles, now, the Liberals have clung to their Biblical myth of return, whereby a hero emerges from the mists, takes up his sword and leads them back to the Promised Land. At what point does it get old?
It began with Paul Martin, who'd slain the deficit but peaked too soon. Then came Stephane Dion, by mistake; then Michael Ignatieff. The internationally renowned author was in many respects a perfect Liberal candidate, with a political lineage drawn directly back to Lester B. Pearson. Marvellous! He fizzled.
Then, for a while, Rae was the One — Rhodes scholar, gifted orator, passionate political warrior. But upon reflection, that wasn't going to work either. Rae was too old, his record as Ontario premier too polarizing. Faced with his coronation, the party was already preparing to rip itself apart. Rae saw the lay of the land and did the intelligent thing. As he stepped back he may as well have said to Trudeau: You're up. Have fun, kid — if you think you can hack it.
Here's a question, for fun. Is there a single plank in the Liberal platforms of 2006, 2008 or 2011 that the party would now repudiate? Here's another: In what way is a centre-left-leaning Liberal Party different from a centre-left-leaning New Democratic Party? Let's acknowledge that the 35 Liberals in the current parliament, many of them former cabinet ministers, are an able lot. But how is their current political posture, vis-a-vis the Harper government, different from the NDP's?
Next question: What has Justin Trudeau ever said or written that is substantive, original or politically powerful, in the sense that it compels people to rally to his side? Of course he has spoken about inclusion and the end of apathy, of the need for reasonable compromise and political engagement. Good. But these are bromides. What has he said that's new?
The charity boxing match in late March has been cited by Trudeau's admirers as evidence of steel, behind the Hollywood looks. I was ringside. I saw him beat up Senator Patrick Brazeau, as the crowd roared its approval. It was a political masterstroke. But what happens when you marry ambition and determination to inexperience and mercurial judgment?
Trudeau has talent to burn. He has the capacity to acquire an intellectual spine and then articulate a coherent political philosophy. He hasn't yet done so. Until he subjects himself to that kind of discipline, he is no match for Stephen Harper, or Thomas Mulcair. In head-to-head debate, either of them will eat his lunch.
There is one scenario — if Trudeau is secretly very crafty, and plotting to pull a Prince Hal, whereby he uncloaks his ruthless gravitas at just the right time — under which his candidacy would make some sense. That is, if he intends to to lead the Liberals into a merger with the NDP, before the 2015 election.
This would be Shakespearean in its irony — the eldest son of P.E. Trudeau presiding over the dissolution of his party, in the service of a progressive vision for Canada. Justin could contest with Tom Mulcair and others for the leadership of the New Democratic Liberals; he would lose; he would become a minister, possibly, in a Mulcair government. Eventually he might become prime minister. Merging with the New Democrats removes the need for a new intellectual spine, because the Dippers have one.
But even here, the logic for moving now is flimsy. If he wishes, Trudeau can work toward a merger as an MP — he needn't be leader to do so. Moreover, a union — say it happens in 2014 — would require a leadership race. He could jump then. In the interim he could stick to his knitting, burnish his chops and acquire some grey hair.
If the Liberal Party is to have any hope at all as an independent entity, it must develop ideas that set it apart from the other two national parties. Paul Martin did this, with help from some very clever strategists, in advance of the publication of the famous Red Book, which won the 1993 election. That's what Liberals should be working through now. Who will write that book? And never mind their latest Moses.
Den Tandt: He's smart, he's talented