Pierre Poilievre’s populism – taking his party “from suits to boots,” as he smartly puts it – has struck a chord. He’s riding a wave. He crushed the field in the Conservative leadership campaign. The inflation surge has the population angry, seemingly ready for change. And he’s the self-proclaimed tribune of the underclass ready to bring it.
But there’s a problem. The new leader’s timing is way off. With an election two or, more likely, three years away, his momentum now means next to nothing.
Mr. Poilievre has benefited from his freedom campaign against vaccine mandates. Three years hence, they’ll likely be long forgotten. His leadership run fortunately coincided with a steep rise in consumer prices, an international malaise for which he blames Justin Trudeau. By 2025, it’s doubtful inflation will be an issue.
As for Mr. Trudeau, he might not even be around. If he does run again, he could call an election at any time. But if he sees P.P. staking himself to a strong lead in the polls, he’ll certainly hold off.
So while Mr. Poilievre is champing at the bit, the Liberals can sit back and let him gnaw. For years.
That said, however, the ebullient Alberta-born leader is still positioned well. He’s got that quality that is critical to longevity and success in politics. He’s a master communicator.
He can connect, he can arouse, he can articulate, he’s adept at the rapier thrust, he can land haymakers. He may well be the best communicator, the best stump politician the Conservatives have had since John Diefenbaker.
In keeping, Mr. Poilievre has a dated Diefenbaker-era look and an oratorical style that is old school as well. But he makes it work. His speech on taking the Conservative crown was rhythmic and commanding, more effective than any acceptance speech by a leader I can recall.
Dief, who Mr. Poilievre cited in his speech, won 208 out of 265 seats in 1958 in a populist campaign run from the centre. Mr. Poilievre has the handicap of being stereotyped as somone on the hard right, but a silver tongue can make up for a lot. It can make loaves and fishes out of a bucket of baloney.
Since the middle of the last century, when the TV age dawned, we’ve seen who the big winners in politics are. They’re the ones who catch your eye, who command the stage, who have a way with words. In the United States, it’s been most noteworthy. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama come to mind. In his coarse obtuse manner, Donald Trump had a way of relating to the masses, enough to win in 2016.
In Canada, we recall the acerbic thrusts and leftish intellectual dazzle of Pierre Trudeau. Brian Mulroney’s baritone overpowered John Turner who, in the 1984 campaign, had the unfortunate habit of harrumphing at the end of his sentences. Jean Chrétien’s broken English and homespun style appealed to the working class.
Stephen Harper hardly lit up the room as a communicator, but he was better than Stéphane Dion, whose discomfort in English was palpable, and Michael Ignatieff, whose ivory-towered tongue couldn’t connect.
Justin Trudeau was a winsome well-spoken podium presence when he won a majority in 2015. But his style hasn’t aged well and, barring changes, his going toe-to-toe with Skippy, as some Liberals call Mr. Poilievre, will be more difficult than other CPC leaders Mr. Trudeau has faced.
There’s a sense of contrivance in the Trudeau speaking manner, like he’s trying to project sincerity. Sincerity isn’t something you can project. He would be better off to converse rather than proclaim. There is too much about him that looks staged.
While the long wait until the next election means Mr. Poilievre can’t capitalize on current momentum, the electoral time frame does give him an opportunity, should he wish it, to temper some of his more obtuse starboard side beliefs that make voters wary of him. Canadian Trump supporters, it should be noted, think he’s terrific.
The danger for powerful communicators such as Mr. Poilievre is that they become overly enamoured with their own voices. Now that he is leader, we’ll see if power goes to his head and how big it swells.
He’s already showing signs of narcissism. Going after the free press, limiting its access and proposing the disbandment of the national broadcast network are not what freedom fighters do. It’s what authoritarian leaders do.
Between being a tribune of the people and a demagogue, there’s a fine line. Mr. Poilievre need bear that in mind.
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