It may be true that American Democrats have nothing better to do than wait for Joe Biden to decide whether he will mount a third bid for the presidency.
Or, failing that, to try to figure out what it is about democratic socialism that might appeal to underemployed young people who are burdened with staggering student debt and face the prospect of getting kicked off a parent’s health insurance plan.
But if America’s Democrats could look away from the 2016 horse race for just a moment, they might actually learn something about going big—and winning big—from Justin Trudeau.
The 43-year-old leader of Canada’s Liberal Party was not supposed to come out of the country’s 2015 election as its prime minister. At the start of the race, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, ally of George W. Bush, role model for Scott Walker, was locked in serious competition with a cautiously left-leaning New Democratic Party. The traditionally centrist Liberals (at their best “vital center,” at their worst blandly managerial), having been very nearly obliterated in the previous election, did not look particularly viable. And party leader Trudeau was frequently dismissed as the good-looking but inexperienced son of a great 20th-century prime minister.
“Seen at the beginning of the campaign as the least ready for the election of the three main party leaders,” observed the Toronto Star at the end of the campaign, “Trudeau managed in 11 weeks to shape a compelling political narrative and provide Canadians with a credible alternative to Harper and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair.”
Trudeau placed a lot of emphasis on hope and change, which drew comparisons to Barack Obama’s inspired campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Obama and the Democrats faced significant challenges in both those US elections, but Obama’s skills and vision — and the ability of his campaign to forge unprecedented coalitions — transformed those electoral moments. In 2016, however, Democrats will not have Obama on the ballot; and as the 2010 and 2014 elections cycles confirmed, Democrats struggle politically in such circumstances.
That’s why Trudeau’s example is instructive.
As a party leader seeking to renew a battered brand and to displace a wily incumbent, the Canadian faced skepticism about his own leadership skills and about the ability of the Liberals to get their act together. As such, he had to give new meaning to the Liberal promise of “real change”—just as American Democrats in 2016 races for the White House and Congress will have to frame a message that, while building on Obama’s accomplishments (and perhaps showing a bit more respect for the president’s political wisdom than many Democrats did in 2014), gives a sense of where the party will go next.