Margaret Thatcher and the New Canadian Prime Minister

Charlie Arlinghaus

October 21, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Newly elected Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and the late, great Margaret Thatcher can teach timid modern politicians that polling, especially the way it’s reported, doesn’t matter and in fact only drives the skittish toward inaction. Polls are snapshots that can fall to a winning argument. Making and winning an argument matters and the good salesman triumphs over the illusory truth of an ephemeral poll.

Monday night, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada destroyed the election narrative written by pollsters months before and rode from third place into a supposedly-impossible majority government. His victory owes much to the admonitions of Margaret Thatcher and stands in stark contrast to the pathetic pseudo-wisdom peddled by American politicians and their media analysts.

Trudeau is no Thatcherite. It’s fair to say that almost anything Margaret wanted, Justin wants the opposite. He is from the left side of the centrist Liberal Party and the ideological heir to his father Pierre who presided over a massive expansion of the state as prime minister for almost sixteen years.

But his path to power followed Thatcher’s advice that “first you win the argument then you win the vote.” Polls can be changed by winning the argument, selling your position to the electorate.

The Liberal Party long governed by being both a little bit left and little right. It occupied a wide, amorphous swath between the Conservative Party and the left-leaning New Democratic Party. In the last election they fell to third place and were thought to be squeezed out on both sides

Trudeau began the election campaign in third and two months ago was still 12 points behind the leading New Democrats, unlikely to be more than a spoiler.  But the other parties campaigned like Americans — believing the media spin that polls are all that matter and just trying to ride out the lead.

Trudeau campaigned. His message was upbeat and optimistic –“sunny days, my friends, sunny days.” He campaigned on ideas — not ideas I agree with, but ideas — while his opponents trimmed their sails.

The Conservatives in particular were stuck. Having run deficits for the last five years they had lost credibility on fiscal sanity. After a decade in power they were reduced to mocking Trudeau for his youth and his parentage — hardly a sign of strength in the battle of ideas.

Mocking your opponents and generally being grumpy old men wasn’t exactly Margaret Thatcher’s vision of  “winning the argument.”

Trudeau actually made the argument which made it easier to win it. On election night he declared “This is what a positive, hopeful vision and a platform and a team can make happen.” A vision and a platform, for my jaded fellow sufferers of modern politics, means talking about ideas and proposals rather than simply poking fun at the other guy.

What’s more, in Canada the Liberal Party is unquestionably the adult in the room on fiscal responsibility in a way that no American congressman seems capable of understanding.

When the Liberals were last in control, they were concerned about 40 years of deficits that had led to debt at a then-scary 67% of the economy — the current American public debt is 75% of GDP but we don’t seem to care.

The Liberals cut spending by an actual 10% with cuts coming in every budget area and balanced the budget in four years.

In our Congress, the deficit isn’t as bad as theirs had been but our nervous politicians maintain that balancing it in even ten years is nigh impossible.

Canadian debt declined from 67% of GDP to 37% today and allowed them to reduce the highest corporate tax rate from 29% down to 15% — ours is 40%.

I hope that Trudeau will spend a bit less than he promises and will balance the budget again in four years after the Conservatives let it go. Whatever happens, Americans can learn a lesson.

Trudeau was 12 points down two months out. A vision and platform — in contrast to opponents insisting he was too young at 43 — brought him twenty points higher than the favored New Democrats and ten points above the Conservatives.

Poll numbers are just random answers given on the day I made the mistake of answering my phone. Ideas have consequences. You can’t win the battle of ideas if you avoid the fight.