Red team the red team
How would you act if you wanted this government to thrive? And why can't this government act like that?
In July 2012, the prime minister of Canada was a year past the last election and three years from the next, making small adjustments while Canadians’ frustration with his government grew large. Stephen Harper was his name, and he began the month by adjusting his cabinet in ways that seemed almost to advertise his team’s weakness (Oda out, Fantino and Valcourt up. The names alone conjure an era long vanished, don’t they?).
In a ski village in Quebec, the instrument of the prime minister’s eventual undoing was meeting with friends to plan the incumbent’s defeat.
Justin Trudeau was his name. “We got together at the end of July in Mont Tremblant,” Trudeau wrote later in his memoir. “My family met with a team of people from across the country, whom we had carefully selected for their talent, energy and experience.”
The details of the Mont Tremblant session that laid the groundwork for Trudeau’s candidacy for Liberal leader are interesting. I’ve long thought Trudeau’s memoir should actually be read by more people who own a copy. But the gist of it is that much of the Trudeau group’s reflection was based on keen understanding of Harper’s weakness. That’s how such gatherings go. You enter any fight with strong beliefs. But you deploy your strengths in a way designed to highlight and exploit your opponent’s weakness.
In July 2022, the prime minister of Canada is a year past the last election and three years from the next. He seems trapped inside a tiny vocabulary of thought and action. We’ll get to his ludicrous response to the passport and airport backlogs, which seems as ineffectual as it is entirely characteristic.
Surely by now, somewhere in Canada, there have already been meetings like the Mont Tremblant strategy weekend, in which people with talent and energy imagine a Canadian government without Justin Trudeau. And for how much longer will such meetings be convened only by Conservatives?
Six months ago I speculated about whether Trudeau would still be prime minister at the end of 2022. It was precocious speculation even then, and I couched it in 90 layers of what-if and to-be-sure. In 2012, after all, Stephen Harper didn’t quit, he stuck around and ran again three years later. That’s still a path that’s easy to imagine for Trudeau.
But it’s funny how time slips away from you, and whether Trudeau plans to quit or stay, he needs to be making big decisions right about now.
If he’s going to quit he should quit. Paul Martin, Kim Campbell and John Turner had their flaws, but they also faced electorates too quickly because their predecessors waited until very late to leave the field. Of the three only Martin eked out an initial election victory, and it left him weakened for the rematch.
If Trudeau is going to stay, he needs to start thinking about how to face voters with something more than exhaustion, risk aversion and denial.
Of course the Liberal plan is to face voters with exhaustion, risk aversion, denial and yet another referendum on Canadian values. Trudeau has been running against Donald Trump since Trump was elected. And it kind of works! Warning voters against a regressive apocalypse has kept Trudeau in — sorry, near — 24 Sussex Drive through two re-elections. But the returns on the strategy are diminishing. The Liberals’ share of the popular vote declined in 2019 and 2021. The only leader since Confederation to hold power with a smaller share of the popular vote than Trudeau in 2019 was Trudeau in 2021. He remains the legitimate prime minister, but the trend line isn’t great. And the last time Liberal parties fell out of power in a big theatre in Canada — in the Quebec and Ontario elections of 2018 — they fell to historic lows.
All of these thoughts occured to me when Trudeau wrote to Canadians from Kigali on Saturday to announce he is adjusting his cabinet in ways that seemed almost to advertise his team’s weakness.
This newsletter is subscriber-supported. In the rest of today’s post, I discuss the latest symptoms of a pretty deep malaise in the Trudeau government, and I wonder what would happen if somebody from outside, with a mandate to speak truth to power, got a look inside this government.