Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Starring: Someone’s Fuddleduddling Son

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Thursday February 22, 2007 at 10:32 pm)

The beauty of belonging to a political dynasty is that it’s not that hard to do. Legend has it that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was first chosen to carry the Liberal banner in Ottawa South because there would be no need to change the signs — the incumbent was his late father, Dalton McGuinty. It’s hard to consider the election of a Kennedy an accomplishment — unless he runs in Texas.

Which reveals what the dynasty’s latest champion always is: a star candidate. Their name recognition is the source of their appeal. The Frosty Wonk’s rarely been convinced of the value of a star candidate, but that’s mostly because they tend to run in safe seats.

There had earlier been some discussion of late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau, running in the old homebase of Outremont. Fawning over the scion had been in high gear since his reconnection with his father’s old party, leading to guest-star appearances across the province.

And with good cause. Trudeau brings good looks, youth, and eloquence to his legacy. And just as his father’s charisma showed, those three, in stark contrast to more staid politicians, is a winning strategy for elections. But a popular package does nothing to fill the void in his primary asset: mere heredity provides neither political skills nor effective leadership. Indeed, these problems have been noted:

Last week, for instance, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno surveyed some online comments about Mr. Trudeau and concluded, among other things, that he seems “unfocused and superficial, a dilettante trading on the family name.”

Trudeau has acknowledged that he needs to add something to his natural boons:

Look, for some reason, I was given an undue amount of power and influence that I certainly didn’t ask for and didn’t earn.’ So then you say, ‘Well then I have to try and be worthy of it.’

And he suggested a point of reference for worthiness, stating last July that:

. . .before he enters politics, there are a few things that need to happen. First, he feels like his opinions and beliefs need to get stronger and “anchored”. He knows that some people will like him because of his name and some people will hate him. By having strong beliefs on issues, his opinions will succeed or fail on their own merit, not because of his father. He doesn’t want to be used. He wants to be his own person. He also said that he realizes that there is a great responsibility that comes with being a Trudeau. He realizes it and will not enter politics until he feels that he can be judged and tested on his own merits, not based on nostalgia, or when he feels that he couldn’t possibly do any worse than the politicians that are in power.

But now that his candidacy has been announced (if not confirmed), does that mean that he has succeeded in strengthening and anchoring his beliefs in a mere seven months? Or does it mean that he’s using the escape clause, and going ahead because he thinks he can do at least as well as those around now? The latter interpretation does little to deny the charges of dilletantism or inexperience.

Some may hope that the struggle of an election will provide Trudeau with the experience he still lacks. After all, it’s a “contested” riding, currently occupied by the Bloc Quebecois.

Sadly, what lurks beneath the surface is a very different matter. Battles for the nomination in a riding consist of signing up more members than your opponents — a process which, however much a part of politics, has as much in common with winning elections as collecting coins does with effective customer billing. And the real campaign, once Trudeau (inevitably) wins the Liberal nomination, isn’t likely to be much more help.

In the last election, the BQ took the seat from besieged cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew by 990 votes — a small margin considering that in 2004 and 2006, both elections under Paul Martin and post-sponsorship scandal, the Liberal vote in the riding was more than 6,000 votes below Pettigrew’s totals in 2000 and 1997 in the riding from which Papineau was carved out. On the whole, Papineau and its predecessor ridings had been solidly Liberal since 1957, including a margin of 701 votes in the Tory sweep of 1984.

Considering that 2004 and 2006 were nadirs for the Liberals in Quebec, and given their resurgent poll numbers in that province, the likelihood that Papineau will return to the Liberal fold is high, regardless of the candidate selected. In those circumstances, a candidate with star appeal is a waste of resources. But of course, in those circumstances, a candidate with star appeal is likely to attribute success to his presence, however unnecessary it might have been. Prove that it wasn’t.

Which raises the question of star candidate strategy again: why waste them in ridings which can be won without them?

But it raises additional questions for young M. Trudeau. If he’s convinced that he’s ready to take on politics, why not take on a riding where, in combination with hard work, his natural gifts can bring an uncertain seat into the Liberal column? That would be an accomplishment. Papineau will not be an accomplishment. It will merely be the latest playground for a boy who was given everything, bringing him one step closer to following in his father’s footsteps without making him any more qualified to rank among the nation’s leaders.

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