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Justin Trudeau’s face

Paul Wells: The Liberal campaign is built around a sophisticated oppo research organization that says their opponents are bad people. Where does it stand now?
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes a statement in regards to photo coming to light of himself from 2001 wearing "brownface" during a scrum on his campaign plane in Halifax, N.S., on Wednesday, September 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

You’ll be relieved to know Justin Trudeau will be talking to his children about all this.

The Prime Minister will, he told reporters at the back of the Liberal tour plane in Halifax, be telling his children that when you make a mistake you need to own up to it.

I don’t know whether he’ll tell them it’s a good idea to wait 18 years and only commence the owning-up once the nature and details of your error have been published in Time magazine—or whether, yet again, he’ll be holding others to higher standards than he holds himself.

The mistake in question—he was the only person who showed up in brownface makeup to a theme party at the ritzy Vancouver private school where he was a teacher in 2001—is of the general class of error that one would probably have thought about in the intervening years. (What reaction did he get? Did the other faculty think he was being hilarious? Did they edge away as gently as possible? Did they talk about him later?) And perhaps Trudeau thought, when Virginia’s governor faced calls for resignation over his own blackface yearbook photo, that this was something he should discuss with senior staff. But no.

To his credit, once he was caught, Trudeau was contrite this time. Usually he doesn’t even bother. When he contravenes the conflict-of-interest law to take a fun family vacation with a billionaire spiritual leader, it’s just that we don’t understand he has nice friends. When he sends wave after wave of medium-quality enforcer to pressure his own attorney general to cancel a criminal trial for a well-connected engineering firm, it’s just that she isn’t a team player.

Grading the former teacher on the curve, we see he is finally showing signs of real improvement. “Admit it was bad when they publish the photos” is a big step up from “Eject her from the party and run a candidate against her.” He even volunteered that he had had some practice with the technique, donning blackface for a rendition of Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) while a student at Montreal’s intellectually rigorous Jesuit Collège Jean de Brébeuf high school in the 80s. (“There is no specific dress code,” the school’s Wikipedia page points out.) So for one of his ventures into minstrelsy, he actually decided not to wait for publication. Progress. But of course, in Canada better is always possible.

READ MORE: Riding the bus with Justin Trudeau

Those of you still on Twitter had seen every possible reaction long before I could write this. That if Trudeau were a simple riding-level candidate instead of an incumbent prime minister, he’d have been stripped of the right to run before you could see the photo. (True.) That if he’d been the leader of the Conservatives, there’d be an emergency meeting of some high-level faction in the party to prepare to demand he resign. (Hard to know, but plausible.) That what he’d done was worse than/ nowhere near as bad as what Andrew Scheer’s candidates have done. (That one’s for you to weigh by your own lights.) That attitudes toward blackface are a little different in Quebec. (Former colleague Martin Patriquin has tackled that one more than once.)

I’ll note only that until Wednesday night, the Liberal campaign was a two-level operation of a sophistication I’ve rarely seen before. The front man for the campaign has been Trudeau, touring the country making bland little announcements of no conceivable incidence on the lives of most Canadians ($50,000 startup grants for 2,000 entrepreneurs, for instance, in a country with 1.1 million small businesses). On the rare occasions when he permitted himself to be bothered by reporters’ questions, his smirky non-answers were of Teflon quality and ensured that no useful information would escape from the travelling bubble in which a large sample of the nation’s political journalists remained safely ensconced.

The Trudeau tour, it turns out, has been a modern parallel to the ghost armies the Allies sometimes deployed a lifetime ago as a feint to confuse the enemy. The bulk of the Liberal campaign effort has been held back, well away from the leader tour, and has taken the form of a constant barrage of oppo research deployed against Conservative candidates. I called an acquaintance at Liberal HQ about this the other day, and was rewarded with a summary of this campaign’s successes to date. The Conservative candidate in York Centre wants to “end abortion,” Carolyn Bennett tweeted. The Brampton North candidate was homophobic on Facebook years ago. A candidate outside Ottawa is “bothered” by “the Quebec people”  and is right-wing hate-clown Faith Goldy‘s “best friend.” And on. And on. And on.

The depth and breadth of this oppo campaign is formidable, and I finally realized why it seemed familiar when I recalled that among the senior Liberal campaign staff are campaign director Jeremy Broadhurst and rapid-response lead Brian Clow, both veterans of the two-year campaign to save NAFTA. Colleague Nick Taylor-Vaisey wrote compellingly about that complex, layered effort while it was happening. There’s something about the NAFTA campaign in all this: the way dozens of staff members and elected Liberals have been conscripted to it; the tight message control; the sheer relentlessness. I actually suspect that in some corner of it, the Liberal campaign’s fondest hope is that this values barrage will serve as the template, not just for beating Andrew Scheer, but for beating Donald Trump and congressional Republicans in 2020. The whole plan, after all, germinated on a Halifax stage a year and a half ago when Gerry Butts and David Axelrod pondered their continental mission in front of an audience that included Justin Trudeau.

The front for the Liberal campaign has been Trudeau making a frankly listless and uninteresting argument about good governance and affordability. The bulk of it has been a country-wide values argument from which the leader was carefully insulated, but executed on his behalf, and its message has been: These are bad people we are running against. They don’t deserve your vote.

Where does that campaign stand now? “If everyone who is going to be standing for office needs to demonstrate that they’ve been perfect every step of their lives, there’s going to be a shortage of people running for office,” Trudeau said tonight. Yet another idea that doesn’t seem to have occurred to him until just after somebody at Time hit PUBLISH.

I’m not sure this should work the way Cold War prisoner exchanges worked—send one Trudeau across the bridge in return for a dozen or two Conservative candidates, call it a wash. That’s too easy for all concerned. I think it’s fairer to say, most of the things you ever did that sound appalling now were appalling then, and you deserve to have a terrible time living with them. But also that people change. People grow. Justin Trudeau’s career has been based on claiming that simple fact for himself and denying it to his opponents. Will that stop now? Of course not. It’s how he’s wired.