Justin Trudeau has stepped in it

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Justin Trudeau at a campaign event in a Liberal letter jacket. Image: Justin Trudea/Twitter

What happened to the Liberals? It's not complicated. They got greedy.

They were doing fine, and voters were satisfied. Last time out, they won an election they might've lost -- especially after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's Blackface photos -- but they got a strong minority and had no trouble passing their agenda with NDP support.

But they disliked the nattering about scandals like WE Charity that an opposition can do in a minority situation, and maybe they thought Justin would inevitably mess up again. The guy is prone. So they really wanted a majority. Really really.

This showed a totally tin ear to how ordinary people would react in the midst of a COVID surge which had already begun, and an unexpected Afghanistan collapse. It was entirely a failure to empathize with normal human responses. Do you truly want to be loaded up with an election when so much is coming at you, including a school year barrelling down and you've no clue what your kids will face? Do you want to stand in a voting line and worry about infection, or take the trouble to figure out how to do it by mail?

Maybe when there's less on your mind. The election call was grossly insensitive and out of touch with normal reactions. Mr. Empathy blanked, as if he forgot that he's Mr. Empathy.

That self-absorption bothers people. They feel reduced to an electoral calculation, taken for granted. Then they glance at Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and guess what, he's not Stephen Harper, not even Andrew Scheer. And some Harperish Tories, like Michelle Rempel Garner, seem chastened and selectively apologetic.

Ultimately, it isn't about arrogance or greed. The Liberals didn't take the trouble to get inside the voters' heads.

Perhaps partly to avoid or pre-empt Justin doing another jerky thing, like Blackface or WE, they called an unnecessary election -- which paradoxically became his jerkiest thing yet. He didn't even try to justify it, just mouthed some blather about giving Canadians a voice. That's not a reason, it's a script.

The strange thing is the Liberals' strong point has been their policies, not Justin's muddy charisma. Like legalized weed or Syrian refugees; handling the pandemic, where they foregrounded people versus "the economy" by getting money (lots, relatively) into people's hands and keeping businesses afloat; dealing well with the vaccines, given that we'd lost our manufacturing base for it to free trade deals; and passing a real child-care program.

They've had an almost visionary approach to public spending, finally breaking free from the stupid analogy to household spending and tying it not to balanced budgets but rather growth-to-GDP ratios. But they're on a losing path. Greed just doesn't sit well.

Justin, OTOH, is their weak point. Who saw that coming? I'm not talking about the full-out haters. We all have irrational breaking points. (Mine was Brian Mulroney, and still is.) His oozing earnestness at the mic doesn't go down smoothly, and hasn't since the eulogy at his dad's funeral. It sounds practised, needy. What works is the opposite key, which he also has: the early outburst in the House against hypocrisy ("You piece of s -- t"); the boxing match he should never have got into; saying "I was embarrassed" when he was embarrassed about having evaded the Blackface issue; all the times he stops oozing. He does best when he gets cornered and loses track of what he wants to sound like.

Privately (as we hear about every public figure not resonating publicly) he may be different and delightfully acerbic -- much like his dad, who was a master of I Don't Give a Crap politics. But the real Liberal strength is their record and policies despite their leader. In the U.S. argot, they're not Justin strong but policy strong.

Not to avoid the real issue here: I'd still be inclined to vote Liberal, without enthusiasm or joy. Why? Because though the Liberals may well deserve to lose this unloved, unneeded election, and merit a good smack, the people of Canada don't deserve to lose palpable benefits, like an effective national child-care program at long last, which would slide right down the drain under O'Toole. We wouldn't get adequate child care; we'd get some abstract thing called "choice."

Or I may be trying to be too rational. Fortunately, it's the Canadian electorate's decision, not mine.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

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