It’s been fascinating to watch Canada’s pre-election period change with Tom Mulcair’s NDP surging into first place in some polls, while Justin Trudeau’s Liberals fall into third place after a slow descent that started last fall.
At this stage, the Tory-led attack on Justin Trudeau that, “He’s just not ready,” seems to be resonating. I agree it’s because many voters, myself included, are finally accepting that Justin is too green to be handed the reins of power this year. The attack line works because it rings true and opportunities for reversing that opinion are running out quickly.
This isn’t the first time Tory attack lines have devastated Liberal leaders. We can all recall how “He’s not a leader,” worked wonders on Stephane Dion and “He didn’t come back for you,” ruined Michael Ignatieff’s reputation. Those attacks were worse because, while they resonated as superficially true, there was almost nothing those two men could do to effectively counter the attacks. Dion really didn’t look or sound like a leader at all to most Canadians (and also showed no ability to grow in his job as leader), while Iggy couldn’t erase his entire life experience outside Canada before politics. The Grits didn’t have the money to define their leaders before the Tories did it for them.
But the “He’s not ready,” attack line today can only continue to resonate as long as Justin Trudeau appears not to be ready for the prime minister’s office. Should JT start acting and sounding like a seasoned, tough leader with a steady hand and a concrete vision that resonates with Canadians, the attack line will be neutralized.
It’s happened before. In 1999, Dalton McGuinty ran in his first campaign as Ontario Liberal leader against a first-term Mike Harris government. McGuinty had virtually no public profile before then, so the Tories attacked him as someone, “who’s just not up to the job.” McGuinty proceeded to run an unfocussed campaign that basically said to voters, “I’m not Mike Harris. Vote for me.” He didn’t appear ready for prime time.
But McGuinty benefited that year from facing an equally ineffectual NDP leader in Howard Hampton. Voters desperate to vote against Harris held their noses and swung strongly behind McGuinty’s Liberals. Thus, McGuinty led his party to some decent gains, even though Mike Harris won a slimmer majority. Then McGuinty spent the next four years fleshing out decent policies and branding himself as the guy who could fix Ontario after 8 years of public service neglect under the Tories by investing in public health care and public education.
In 2003, when the Tories revised their attack line against McGuinty with “He’s still not up to the job,” voters disagreed and proceeded to toss the Tories into opposition, where they have yet to recover.
History is filled with political leaders who both had great timing and the right instincts to win on their first try, and those who might’ve had good timing, but lacked the requisite skills to get over the top.
Rachel Notley is the most recent example of a leader with both amazing, natural skills and perfect timing, winning her first time out. Kathleen Wynne is another leader who did the same.
Wynne, of course, benefited greatly from facing off against Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak, who, despite running against an unpopular government, still managed to blow two elections. Hudak never figured out how to sell himself and win.
Losers can turn themselves into winners by learning from their mistakes and growing as leaders, if they have the time to do so. McGuinty was able to do that. Jack Layton did it as well, sort of (he never actually won, but his Orange Crush surge into official opposition seemed like a victory to many.) John Tory also finally figured out how to win.
Now the big question is: can Justin Trudeau ever become that leader who does appear to be “ready” for the Prime Minister’s Office?
If Justin doesn’t win this year, it will all depend on how well the Grits can do at all. Losing the election won’t be a disaster. Neither will failing to even form the official opposition, as long as the party still manages considerable gains in the popular vote and seat count. It all depends on the campaign and the final results.
If Trudeau loses this year but still runs a solid campaign and makes major gains, he will likely live to fight another day (especially if there’s a minority government elected.) Then Trudeau will get the opportunity to get more experience and perhaps become the leader he needs to be to win over Canadians. Perseverance and years of hard work always look impressive.
But if Trudeau’s loss is instead catastrophic, he may never get that chance.
Follow Matt Guerin on twitter: @mattfguerin