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Trudeau Critics Wanted Substance, And They Got It

01/31/2014 12:15 EST | Updated 04/02/2014 05:59 EDT

I'll leave it to others to sort through the constitutional implications of Justin Trudeau's senate move this week.

But I want to comment on what Justin's move did for his "brand", because that's my expertise.

I wish politics and brands had nothing to do with each other and people got elected strictly on the merit of their views, ideas and capabilities. But alas, most voters make their decisions based on the 98% of their minds called the unconscious. So, sadly, politicians and the notion of developing a "brand" have become one.

If you were to ask Justin or his advisors what his brand is, they'd likely say "sunny ways," invoking the legacy of Laurier's calm, cheerful disposition. Justin's a likeable guy. And he's made openness, positivity and inclusiveness -- "hope and hard work" -- his theme.

It grated the NDP, but it was largely true: in today's political landscape, Justin Trudeau has taken up the mantle of Jack Layton's "love, hope and optimism." Insofar as politics is about disposition and likeability, Justin beats Messrs Mulcair and Harper hands down.

But what of that old mantra, "nice guys finish last"?

Late last year, Warren Kinsella wrote a blog post about Premier Kathleen Wynne, shortly after she fired three people at Ontario Power Generation following revelations of overspending:

"Wynne has this incongruity I like: she smiles a lot and is friendly, but she is absolutely brutal when fat-cats start getting reckless with taxpayer-subsidized expense accounts... she's the one swinging the axe. Voters like that."

There's a sweet-spot calculus to a leader whose brand is "sunny ways": at some point, you have to do something courageous or else you look weak, airy fairy or indecisive.

In Justin's case, this problem was compounded by his attempt to create a grassroots policy process. There's been much ink spilled over the notion that Justin lacks policy.

Let's just put that criticism into context. Justin inherited a tired Party, one tired from decades of infighting, a decade of losing and a decade of being massively out-fundraised by the Conservatives.

He needed to rebuild the party, to create a grassroots team that could win.

He's achieved some hefty benchmarks towards that goal: fundraising is comparatively strong; he attracts large, energetic crowds; and there's a youthful sense of purpose about the party.

And, Trudeau rightly argues that the way to create policy in a grassroots party isn't from on high, as in past eras when the spin doctors and party elders wrote the platform in Ottawa. It's to consult and listen to the liberal movement and the Liberal supporters. Justin seems to be doing that, and we'll see if it reaches the next level in Montreal at the end of February at the biennial policy convention.

But, and as The Ottawa Citizen reported, Justin knew he couldn't keep waiting on the senate issue. He was the odd man out in the debate, with Harper favouring electing the Senate, which wouldn't work, and Mulcair favouring opening the constitution to abolish the Senate, which won't happen.

So, Justin and his team came up with the best solution to the complex senate problem so far.

And he took action.

In so doing, he corrected a weakness of his brand. Yes, Justin Trudeau's brand is still about "sunny ways."

But, now, he's also seen as not afraid to make the tough decisions swiftly and definitively when it counts. His announcement yesterday was a bold risk; it was also harsh medicine.

It may be an over-simplification, but the average voter will take away a simple message from yesterday's actions: Trudeau fired the bad guys.

Trudeau advisor Robert Asselin said it well: "Canadians see a bunch of old politicians doing the same thing over and over. And they see this young guy saying 'I'm going to change things and I mean it. And here's the proof of it: I'm going to fire a bunch of senators from my own caucus.'"

In her recent book, Susan Delacourt writes about the advertising created to frame Trudeau the elder as a gunslinger, an effort to make the intellectual prime minister into a potent political force. In a similar way, Justin yesterday added decisiveness to his image as a nice guy.

In that respect, what Justin's Senate decision has done is to expand his brand identity. He's gone from being a likeable guy to a likeable reformer.

I think there's a bigger brand that Justin lays claim to, as well. He's a striking visual representation of change. Put him against the other two leaders and it's like a Kennedy-versus-Nixon dynamic.

Trudeau's naysayers attack him as vacuous. He's a nice guy -- but where's the beef?

Well, Justin Trudeau just showed substance and leadership. It surprised his detractors and caught his rivals off guard.

In so doing, he grew his brand identity. He's not just a likeable guy anymore. He's a likeable agent of change.

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