There are many differences between Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair — the most important may be that Trudeau is personally liked by a large segment of the population. What he has in common with them, though, is that he is also disliked.
But that comes with the territory of being a politician, a vocation that means being distrusted and vilified. Rare is the politician who has personal appeal and charm and is not merely tolerated for being better than the other options on the ballot.
Being likeable is a vote-winner. Jack Layton, Barack Obama and even George W. Bush are just a few recent examples of that. It cannot be something voted into a party platform or built up from the grassroots level.
Those who see a Trudeau leadership run as an inevitable coronation may be overestimating his capabilities. People who pay very close attention to politics, including those members of the Liberal Party who will select their next leader, tend to focus on the finer points of political strategy more than the average voter. Many can already see the Conservative attack ads. There are fears that he is a lightweight on policy and that he does not have the experience to run the country, let alone a troubled political organization. Party members will take these issues into account.
But experience and policy do not always trump personality. In the United States, John McCain had experience in spades but lost to Obama. John Kerry and Al Gore were far more wonkish on policy than Bush. And Harper had far less experience running anything of importance than Paul Martin when he defeated him in the 2006 federal election.
The attacks that will come from both the Conservatives and the New Democrats to highlight these gaps in Trudeau’s CV might be hard to land with any great success. Trudeau is already defined in the minds of many Canadians and is already well known (only nine per cent were unsure of their opinion of him in a recent Abacus Data poll). And if Trudeau is well-liked (he had higher favourability ratings than either Mulcair or Harper in that poll) overly partisan attacks could backfire.
A lot of voters will not bother to focus on these Trudeau flaws. If their exposure to him is limited to a clip on the news containing a quip and a smile or softball interviews on non-political talk shows, it will be hard to shake them from their positive opinion. Being likeable is such a rare quality in political leaders that the advantage it will confer on Trudeau could be huge.
But if Trudeau runs and wins is he the solution that will single-handedly change the fortunes of the Liberals? No, but he has the potential to galvanize the party, attract a good team of advisers around him and return the organization to good financial health.
He could also be a flop — but a Trudeau leadership was always going to be high-risk, high-reward proposition. Party members will decide whether the gamble is worth taking and the leadership campaign will expose whether he is up to the task or not. But those who think that a slow, incremental grassroots re-tooling of policy and vision will really reach out to Canadians are exercising a little bit of wishful thinking. Like it or not, style is becoming more important than substance in modern campaigning and, while having both is the winning combination, only one of those is something that cannot be learned.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.
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