“A lousy week,” opines The Globe and Mail. “Canada’s first war casualty,” notes The Star’s Chantal Hébert. And no question about it: the downside of the Liberal Party leader’s current image strategy has finally caught up with him.
And yet … there will be Liberal strategists who will regard this as a stroke of good luck for Justin.
It’s a stroke of good luck because at least Justin’s revelation of his ignorance on international affairs happened now, instead of in 2015 during an election campaign. Which means he has time to rectify this oversight, get himself briefed up fully on ISIL and the Middle East situation (not to mention memorizing the NATO charter), and (for once) listen to the senior members of the Liberal tribe who’ve had experience in the weeds of foreign affairs.
Which of course means that, in an election debate, if the other leaders care to try him on topics of international controversy, Mr. Trudeau won’t be showing as much of the caught-in-the-headlights attitude that he displayed here. Because his team will have taken steps to get him at least headline familiar with what’s happening out there.
It’s also a further stroke of luck for him because, as painful as this may sound, it reveals significant weaknesses that he has time to address. Such as: well, one, that he doesn’t do well with surprises. And two, that he hasn’t considered serious issues beyond what’s seen in the headlines.
Now if the Liberal higher-ups are really as smart and clever as they think they are, they could judo-flip this into an approach that appeals to the public. Because the sort of ignorance that we’re talking about here isn’t really unique to Justin Trudeau, but a fair chunk of the electorate.
Take, for example, not knowing about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which, by the way, you can find here). Sure, Mr. Trudeau didn’t know what it was — but neither, I suspect, does the average coffee-drinker at Tim Horton’s; they’d have to look it up on Wikipedia. It’s the type of knowledge that, frankly, we don’t need, in order to get through everyday life; if he were not a Party leader, most people wouldn’t expect Justin to know that either.
Exposing a target’s ignorance, especially when the target is a public figure, is known as the “gotcha” strategy, and deployed carefully it can derail a politician’s goals. Use it too often, however, and the voting public begins to gain sympathy for the target — enough, in fact, to keep him or her viable as a political threat, which is one of the reasons why Sarah Palin and Rob Ford have managed to stay a viable force in politics. The temptation for Tory strategists and other anti-Trudeau forces will be to employ the “gotcha” strategy on every portfolio that they think a Prime Minister should be familiar with, and then crow about Trudeau’s attempts to avoid tripping up. Such people forget that there is nobody as unpopular in politics as a smug, clever pol who tries to make opponents look stupid. (To those who cry out “criminal record!” we merely point to the career of Washington DC mayor Marion Barry, who won a term in office despite having one.)