Michael Den Tandt: The Tories aren’t doing perfectly, but neither are Trudeau and Mulcair

’s bid for a fourth term is not going so well, it is generally agreed. But here’s the funny thing: Though the Conservatives have slipped to third place, gaps between the major parties remain negligible. Now clinging to 28 per cent national support according to poll tracker Eric Grenier, Harper is still within easy reach of ’s Liberals, at 31.5 per cent, and ’s New Democrats, at 31.6 per cent.

More tellingly, neither Trudeau nor Mulcair has broken free at the campaign’s mid-point. There is no front-runner. This suggests Harper isn’t the only one making unforced errors; Mulcair and Trudeau must be missing the mark as well, to a degree. There was ample evidence to this effect as CBC’s continued his series of face-to-face chats with the federal leaders.

Justin Trudeau, the all-seeing TV camera revealed again Tuesday evening, is a well-intended, earnest man. He had two particularly strong moments with Mansbridge; the first when he declared (as he had done previously in an interview with CTV’s Bob Fife) that he intended to reverse the centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, which began in his father’s era, roughly 1968-1984. Trudeau’s assertion that “we get better public policy … when it’s done openly and transparently” reflects a reformist sentiment that is among the most attractive aspects of the Liberal platform.

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Trudeau’s recounting of his motivation (making us united, keeping us safe, giving everyone a real and fair chance to succeed) seemed genuine. After a decade of relatively dour leadership, the Liberal leader’s forthright optimism has a certain cyclical appeal.

But the flip side, also revealed in close-up, is that Trudeau continues to want for gravitas. Some of what he says is contradictory, for example his claim that it is “extremely important” that continues in the fight against ISIS, while simultaneously cutting back the military’s role to training — which, as Mansbridge said, hasn’t worked for a decade. Caught out, Trudeau veered into vagueness. “You make sure that the Kurds, for example, are able to fight, to take back their territories. You work with them in a much greater way than we’re doing right now.” Greater how? He didn’t say.

The Liberal party’s bolt to the left two weeks ago, when it morphed from the party of balanced budgets into the party of deficits in the space of an afternoon, may yet turn out to have been clever electorally. There is Rachel Notley in Alberta to consider, and free-spending Kathleen Wynne’s surprise victory in Ontario last year.

What is not in doubt is the awkwardness of Trudeau’s new line of attack on the New Democrats, whom Liberals formerly derided as reckless spendthrifts. He told Mansbridge Mulcair proposes “austerity.” Even given the elasticity of truth in campaign season, this is a great stretch. Mulcair has promised to balance his budget in 2016 — which, though it would seem to require delaying some new program spending or raising taxes, is nothing like a promise of austerity.

Trudeau’s apparent dig at small business (“we have to know that a large percentage of small businesses are actually just ways for wealthier Canadians to save on their taxes”) will also cost him. The small business people I know work long hours for low pay. In many communities where big factories have moved away, small business is all that’s left. Trudeau wasn’t referring to the hard-working job-creators, Liberals have argued. OK then: To whom was he referring?

The polls reflect a campaign in which not just one party, but three, have yet to find the sweet spot

Mulcair, meantime, has troubles of a different sort. In his own conversation with Mansbridge Wednesday, he came across as knowledgeable, determined and calm — prime ministerial. He took the opportunity to re-assert his newfound fiscal conservatism, which is both sensible, and likely to help him hoover up disaffected Tory votes. But the NDP leader’s very persuasiveness can cloud that some of his most important policies are un-saleable, or incoherent.

Asked about his promise to repeal the Clarity Act, he first said it is not a priority — but then re-asserted that 50 per cent +1 is his threshold for igniting talks on separation. The more he repeats this, the more English Canadian votes he will lose. The Senate, Mulcair insisted, will continue to be downsized by attrition, but will nevertheless pass his laws, even as he works with the provinces to abolish it by unanimous consent. The first is unconstitutional, the second highly unlikely, the third practically impossible.

Asked about his counter-terrorist policy, Mulcair chimed the NDP line — that Canada will end all military participation in the fight against ISIS, training or otherwise, and in undefined ways become an agent for peace. He declared himself “profoundly” in favour of this position. This puts him at odds with 150 years of Canadian tradition, common sense and the views of the majority. It amounts to letting others fight Canada’s battles, while we cluck disapprovingly from the sidelines.

Here’s where all that gets us: The polls reflect a campaign in which not just one party, but three, have yet to find the sweet spot. It’s astonishing, given his recent woes, that Harper is still in the game. This is not over, just yet.

About Michael Den Tandt