Justin Trudeau: Charisma alone makes him a force not to be taken lightly

With Justin Trudeau’s “coronation” as Liberal Party leader merely a matter of hanging up the banners and inflating the red balloons, the fun is over and the grind begins.

Is he “sizzle” or “steak”? Is there substance behind the charisma?

And does it matter?

There are a variety of political truisms to recall:

A week is a lifetime in politics: And there are well over a hundred weeks before the next federal election;

Governments are not defeated; they defeat themselves: But if you have to count on a government defeating itself, you are not starting from a strong position; and

It’s the economy, stupid: So defeating a government in good times is an uphill struggle, and defeating an incumbent prime minister is even harder.

Regarding Trudeau, nobody claims him as a public intellectual comparable to his father. Although he appears to have evolved past the dismissive sobriquet that he was “Margaret’s child” (in effect, personally pleasant but not intellectually inspiring), his career accomplishments were dwarfed by other contenders like Marc Garneau. Nor is a striking idea or ideal his driving motif — other than a suggestion that he could imagine endorsing Quebec separation should Canada continue along the Harper-Conservative path.

But overarching intellect isn’t a requirement to be Canada’s prime minister. (See Jean Chretien’s fumble-mouth comments over decades.) Nor does a high quality intellect guarantee success. The Reform Party’s Preston Manning was intelligent, thoughtful, and handily defeated.

Charisma is protean. One individual’s charismatic leader is another’s hair-on-fire demagogue. An inspiring teacher for one student is a shallow trivialist for another. And charisma in politics is always a two-edged sword. One loves to hear a “barn burner” speech, but few want to see the barn aflame.

What epitomizes Justin Trudeau for observers is “charisma”— rock star in its dimensions for Canadian politics. And for Canada’s senior citizens, a second coming of the “Trudeaumania” associated with his father Pierre Trudeau. For them his arrival is just in time to save the Liberals. But it is a different era with different challenges. Trudeau pere assumed control of ruling Liberals that were Canada’s “natural governing party.” Trudeau fils must resurrect the Liberals, if not from the grave, at least from unprecedented levels of defeat and political humiliation. Thus charisma for Trudeau pere was useful (and exciting for Canadians longing for a Kennedyesque politician), but ancillary, not vital. For Trudeau fils, charisma will form a vital component of Liberal revival. Trudeau and his Liberal acolytes must catch his charismatic lightning and transform it into useful political electricity to power resurgence. Because the core of any political success is organization/organization/organization — and when you have organized until exhaustion, get up and go forth to organize some more. Can Justin’s 150,000 Twitter followers be marshaled into a parallel of the endlessly enthusiastic Obamaites (“Yes, we can!") who energized his 2008 campaign? Can the Liberals develop the equivalent of the 2012 Obama computerized get-out-the-vote that assured his victory? Are there adroit Liberal wordsmiths to provide Trudeau with something resembling “steak”? It is easier to sustain enthusiasm when in power and buttressed with strong finances — both of which Trudeau lacks.

Trudeau’s Liberal leadership is a deliberate choice to escape forward. His will be no agonizingly serious Stephane Dion; no arrogantly professorial “just visiting” Michael Ignatieff. It will be a test of charisma’s limits in current Canadian politics. And charisma also fails — historians remember U.S. Democratic leader William Jennings Bryan who galvanized U.S. 19th-20th century Democratic populists and thrice led them to defeat. And Teddy Kennedy was never even able to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

[ Last week's D vs. D: Religion and politics - polarizing, but no longer a prerequisite ]

But Trudeau is hardly performing alone on the political stage. The Mulcair/NDP believes itself a party of destiny and will fight Trudeau for every centre-left vote. Perhaps the NDP had a “career year” in 2011 and will implode to previous third party standing, but such is hardly assured.

Moreover, the Harper Tories are clearly the “A Team” in contemporary Canadian politics. Harper may have the charisma of an economist/accountant, but Canada’s “books” have flourished under his ministration. He is certainly the smartest of the current generation of Canadian politicians and has developed a highly organized, coherent, on-message administration. Additionally, thus far at least, Tories have avoided the four-feet-in-the-trough corruption often afflicting those long in power. They have (mostly) evaded personal scandals that titillate the media but disgust the masses. Betting that the Tories will defeat themselves and lose through voter fatigue after passing their “best-before” political date would be a high risk gamble.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.