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Prime Minister Trudeau can’t run against Harper anymore

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Since his decisive victory in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never really stopped running against his former rival, ex-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Trudeau was at it as recently as April 10, declaring in the House that the Conservatives were “still following Stephen Harper’s playbook.” Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals have invoked Mr. Harper’s name on a regular basis since Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was chosen to lead his party after Mr. Harper stepped down.

The strategy made sense, initially: by 2015, many voters had grown tired of Mr. Harper, who had accumulated at least as many unpopular decisions, actions, and statements during his nine-year run as prime minister as might be expected. So Mr. Harper and his party were defeated. 

By labelling the 2019 Conservatives as a party of Stephen Harper, Mr. Trudeau at once stirred what are for many voters unpleasant memories of the former prime minister, and denied the legitimacy of Mr. Scheer as the new leader, one who has struggled to gain name recognition despite his party’s success in the polls.

It was a sensible political tactic for the Liberal leader who campaigned with the slogan “real change.” Mr. Trudeau’s own accumulation of scandals and controversies, however, has undermined that image of an anti-politician, and along with it the utility of Mr. Harper as a bogeyman.

The SNC-Lavalin scandal was the tipping point, but one controversy after another poor decision have laid waste to the notion that Mr. Trudeau’s team does politics differently. Cash-for-access fundraisers; broken election promises and claims of transparency; subsidies, exemptions and favours for big business; Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals can no longer so starkly contrast themselves with the old way of doing business, which they ascribe to Mr. Harper but which really applies to a greater or lesser extent to nearly every prime minister.

Mr. Trudeau can’t credibly run on “real change” again, but he still has something to offer voters. Many parts of the Liberal platform have withstood the scrutiny that comes with a four-year term. He has proven to be a risk taker, willing to stray outside of a political safe zone and set lofty goals, at times for the better.

Some Liberal insiders speak highly of the way Mr. Trudeau commands a room behind closed doors, but, apart from a few moments in his live town hall events, he has yet to show that side of himself to Canadians during his time as prime minister. He mostly sticks to talking points, phrased in an awkward, unimpressive parlance. That act can only convince voters for so long, and Mr. Scheer—already polling roughly on par with Mr. Trudeau in some measures—will himself become a better-known quantity to Canadians as the pre-election media coverage ramps up.

Mr. Trudeau, whether he likes it or not, will be the establishment candidate, and voters will decide whether they want a change, or not.

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