Matters of terror and war do not lend themselves to nuance or half-measures.
On these two issues, at least, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is finding it difficult to claim a middle ground that has long been his party’s traditional turf.
This should cause concern in Liberal circles, but hardly any sense of panic, because Trudeau’s difficulties and NDP and Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair’s recent burst of oxygen also remind us how quickly things can change in politics. It should remind us of the fallacy of trying to draw straight lines from today to an election more than six months away.
It was barely three months ago that a frustrated NDP was openly grousing, accusing the media of freezing their man out as part of its Trudeau obsession. Others were questioning Mulcair’s style or the party’s communications strategy and they were stuck in a sexual harassment morass that muted any policy announcements they tried to roll out.
Then came two very polarizing moves by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper — his anti-terror legislation and his decision to extend Canada’s anti-ISIS mission into Syria.
This polarization is a sign of the unique political landscape in this country heading into an autumn election.
On such matters of passion, Trudeau is being squeezed.
For generations, Liberals played the political game in a country that essentially had two players. The middle was their playground.
Liberals have never had to thread the needle with a much larger NDP opposition outflanking them, making the party of the nuanced middle run the risk of pushing positions that could be interpreted as NDP-lite.
If you oppose the government’s extended bombing mission in Syria, you would know Mulcair would immediately remove Canadians from the region if elected.
It’s tougher to take up the Liberal rallying cry of ending the bombing mission, but keeping military advisers in the region while stressing humanitarian aid and opening our doors to 25,000 Syrian refugees.
If you oppose the anti-terror act, you want it gutted and rewritten — the NDP position.
It is tougher, again, to heed the Liberal rallying cry of amendments and oversight, but support of the legislation if those amendments are not accepted.
Mulcair has had the wind at his back in 2015. He has received positive coverage for his urban agenda, he has driven the question of a coalition to unseat Harper, he has brought in some experienced hands to help leaven his grim visage and flush out some biographical details as he tries (again) to sell himself to Canadians.
For some, that sale will never be clinched. They see an Opposition leader who is overly partisan, a little too awed by his own intelligence, and surly, no matter how often he reminds himself to smile.
But the biggest problem for the Liberals is that Mulcair will never be pushed around and effectively communicates policy positions that not only protect his flank, but threaten to hive off left-leaning Liberals.
“One either has a position of principle or one does not,’’ he said during Monday evening’s debate.
“Our position of principle is that we are against this war.’’
On the anti-terror act, the Liberals moved too quickly to give Harper conditional support and ceded a swath of public opposition to the bill to Mulcair.
The Liberals initially backed a 30-day, non-combat mission in northern Iraq with the understanding that it would end after 30 days.
Trudeau may have been the only person in Canada who thought that was going to end after 30 days. The party has opposed both extensions.
But with Mulcair leading the opposition, Canadian support for both the war and the anti-terror bill have softened.
The good news for Liberals is that Trudeau is proving adept at holding his ground while under attack from the government.
This week in debate, he again used the term “root causes” of terror, a term for which he was once widely ridiculed by Conservatives.
He also took on Jason Kenney after the defence minister launched into an attack on Liberal “shambolic, embarrassing, fatuous, flip-flopping” on international security, throwing back at Trudeau a number of dubious statements he had offered on foreign affairs, from China to Ukraine.
Trudeau reminded Kenney of his series of equally dubious statements during the Syria debate.
“He is completely out of his depth in this particular portfolio,’’ said Trudeau.
Out of his depth is an apt rejoinder from the man accused of being in over his head.
Trudeau may be finding his feet when it comes to debate.
Now he has to find a way to clear himself some terrain in the middle.
Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star writer. firstname.lastname@example.org.