After a 78-day campaign, Justin Trudeau is the new Prime Minister of Canada, the leader of a majority Liberal government. It is not the result that many expected, but it is a demonstration once again that politics is more spontaneous and uncertain than political scientists would have us believe.
John F. Kennedy once reminded us that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. Mr. Trudeau deserves full credit for the win. Together with a talented and disciplined team he created both a compelling vision and an exciting execution in a flawless campaign. His victory speech last night was generous, thoughtful and without the edge of triumphalism that often means trouble.
There is the inevitable tendency to exaggerate both defeat and victory. They are, as the poet said, both impostors. The popular vote numbers for Mr Trudeau were well below those received by John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney in their sweeps, but the comfortable majority he has in seat count partly shields that reality. Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP were wiped out – but their leading members went down like nine pins, because that’s what happens when the tide goes out.
Mr Trudeau’s win can be traced to a few simple decisions. The first was to “go positive” and stick with it. When Canadians watched the Blue Jays last weekend they saw back-to-back commercials: dark nastiness from the Conservatives and a well-crafted series of clips from Mr. Trudeau’s speech to the largest political rally in a decade.
The second was to break out of the Conservatives’ fiscal sandbox. It allowed him to match his sunny ways with real programs, and to break with the orthodoxy of balanced budgets no matter what the surrounding economic climate.
Both decisions allowed him to outflank the NDP, which began the election ahead in the polls and was eagerly awaiting the moving van from Stornoway to Sussex Drive. Thomas Mulcair did not run a bad campaign, but it could not match the Liberals in either imagination or the energy of its execution. Politics is a momentum play, and as support for the NDP began to wobble people shifted rapidly to the Liberals, just as they had gone the other way in the last two weeks of the 2011 election.
Stephen Harper’s campaign was not a disaster either, but its persistent negativity grated more and more with Canadians, and even those who agreed with his rigid position on the niqab were offended by the harshness of the rhetoric. Dividing the electorate is a hallmark of the Republican school of politics, and Mr. Harper is its most devoted practitioner. Towards the end he was reduced to to bleating that “government is not a popularity contest” and that “it’s not about me”. To which one might reply that popularity has a lot to do with elections and the incessant branding of the government as “the Harper government” makes it a little hard to ignore Mr. Harper.
And so it was that by the end of the campaign Mr. Trudeau was seen by Canadians as the hardest working, most compassionate, most willing to listen, and most capable of learning. He went from trailing Mr. Harper by 10 points in best for prime minister to leading him by seven.
In short, elections do matter, and the electorate takes its own time to come to judgment. Victory and defeat are not permanent, however. They were not in 2011, and they are not today. Mr. Trudeau has climbed to the top of what Disraeli called “the greasy pole” and it will take all his skills and abilities to master governing as he has the art of campaigning. Politics at its best can both inspire and raise our spirits and our actions, and Justin Trudeau has consistently shown Canadians that better is indeed possible.
His critics and opponents would be wise not to make the same mistake they did before. Mr. Trudeau is ready. Do not underestimate him.
Photo by Simon Hayter