Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Like father, like son…?

On a listserv that I read a political scientist returned from a few months abroad and watched Justin Trudeau’s speech to last weekend’s Liberal Showcase. Here in part is what he said:
I have been out of the country during the Liberal leadership campaign, and all I heard was that Justin Trudeau, about whom I knew only the basic facts, was a shoo-in. So being back in time for the Liberal showcase, I decided to find out more by watching his speech. It was quite an experience. While I realize that such speeches are primarily meant to charge up the crowd rather than offer policy solutions, this one, I think, was remarkable in its vacuity. Once one strips away the digs at the other parties…, one is left with essentially nothing but patriotic platitudes....
This jaded response to the speech was shared, remarkably enough, by some young Liberal supporters of Mr. Trudeau.  On the blog Calgary Grit, in the comments section after his post providing an appraisal of the Liberal Showcase, appears this series of comments:
Luke APRIL 7, 2013
Cast my ballot today. There was certainly the feeling of it being a little futile, given the apparently decided nature of the contest already.
Next step: Upgrade from supporter to proper member? Probably.
jared APRIL 7, 2013
good analysis.
the best speech was Bob Rae’s though, by far. somehow he’s the guy who’s ended up articulating perfectly what liberalism and liberalism in Canada is all about, without all the artificial tones and gestures or sounding like a big sappy cliche.
i’ve come around to Justin being the next leader, and if the polls are any indication i’m glad liberals have a leader who inspires Canadians and just might be the lightning rod that anti-Harper sentiments have been feeling around for, but personally i still can’t stand listening to him. it hasn’t gotten better. i’ll be a loyal soldier as long as i never listen to his speeches.
the faux-profundity thing he does is just grating, imo. he should talk more like an ordinary person, not like he’s Martin Luther King Jr. or something.
Luke APRIL 7, 2013
I rather agree with the ‘can’t stand listening to him’ sentiment, although I can just stand it. To me sounds like someone over-acting, and it comes across as wanker-ish. But I guess it’s working for a lot of people.
Other than his speaking style, I’ve also come around to the Justin Trudeau-as-leader concept. I think he’s probably the best choice.
Damned with faint praise. The Justin Trudeau phenomenon has produced favourable headlines but one should not forget that all candidates who win a convention enjoy a honeymoon in both press and polls.  Four years ago the person in a similar position was Michael Ignatieff.  Here was what blogger Éric Grenier of threehundredeight.com said on April 10, 2009 of the Liberal Party (the formal convention was later but the leadership was uncontested):
Since the October 2008 election, no political party has rebounded so strongly in the public opinion polls. The party had had one of their worst results in Canadian history, and now they are on the brink of re-forming government. A lot of this gain can be attributed to Ignatieff, who as a new leader is rewarded with new enthusiasm almost by default. But Ignatieff is also such a different style of leader than Stéphane Dion that the enthusiasm is genuine.
I think the Justin phenomenon goes further than an initial burst of enthusiasm. It has an Emperor’s New Clothes feel about it. I see the enthusiasm of press and pundits, but a disproportionate amount of this is the politics of reputation, which, as the comments above reveal, can disappear when there is a sober, candid appraisal of his actual performance. The residual popularity of Trudeau the father has made the son a celebrity, and has driven a circular self-reinforcing narrative that is predicated in large part simply on this popularity and celebrity. This has an impact on the polling, which then reinforces the media narrative, thus influencing future polls. This has happened before. It will happen again.
However, there is a limit to this cycle.  He must perform well as leader, especially in Parliament. We can judge him in part based on how well he has performed in the past. Justin Trudeau was first elected to the House of Commons on October 14, 2008. On that same day another rookie, slightly younger than Justin, was elected. New Democrat Megan Leslie was elected in Halifax to replace former NDP Leader Alexa McDonough. So of these two newcomers, who was named rookie of the year in 2009 by Maclean’s, or named in early 2011, along with Bob Rae, Gilles Duceppe, John Baird and Jack Layton as one of the five best members of Parliament? Well, it wasn’t Justin.
The point of this is not to praise Megan Leslie, much though that is merited.  It is to ask the question: what has Justin Trudeau, done to distinguish himself in parliamentary or public life? He apparently has some conventional political skills, can work a room like an old pol. Seems more the descendant of his grandfather on this mother's side (a St. Laurent cabinet minister) than his father's son. In any case leadership requires more than that. There have been numerous media references to whether or not he has substance. And for good reason. The appearance of being vacuous is not accidental. Justin Trudeau appears to be at his core, hollow. There is no there there. One of the new Conservative attack ads on Youtube seems to play into this perception of Justin as inexperienced lightweight. The ad is no doubt based on research so there is already some perception that this is a Trudeau characteristic.
Justin's first and larger problem, however, is that he will be compared in his new role to Bob Rae, who has been receiving well-justified plaudits from his party for his performance as interim leader. In 2006, 2009 and again in 2013, the Liberals might have selected Bob Rae, who lost in 2006, was pushed aside for Ignatieff in 2009, and finally found Justin Trudeau standing in his way in 2013.

Trudeau does appear to be the best choice among the field of candidates, which was extremely weak (reflecting the state of the party?), but Rae might have been pressured to run. The Liberal Party has been in decline. Is it partly because the shrewd political instincts that led the Liberal party to take a chance on Trudeau the father have been recklessly abandoned in selecting Trudeau the son? Is this the third such misjudgment in a row?