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While Biden leans in for moderates, Trudeau plays his greatest progressive hits

While Biden leans in for moderates, Trudeau plays his greatest progressive hits
Jess Frampton

Comedian Bill Maher sees Canada as a cautionary tale for the United States, or perhaps more particularly for President Joe Biden.

“Yes, you can move too far left. When you do, you end up pushing the people in the middle to the right,” he said on a recent edition of his HBO show, “Real Time.”

Maher’s central contention was that the US doesn’t have much to learn from Canada on immigration, the economy, or “extreme wokeness.”

Biden most likely agrees.

Maher’s point speaks to an emerging divergence between the president and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, driven by their respective electoral imperatives.

Winning strategies?

The US presidential race is a coin toss, according to recent polls. To win, Biden needs to woo the one-third of American voters who consider themselves “moderates,” especially whites without college degrees, even at the risk of upsetting part of his progressive base. In 2020, he traded on his blue-collar roots and ran on a moderate message. That appears to be the game plan for 2024.

Trudeau, on the other hand, has decided to double down on his appeal to young, left-of-center voters, who first helped elect him in 2015 but who have since deserted him in favor of his Conservative rival. Pierre Poilievre now holds a 2:1 advantage with people born since 1980, according to a recent poll.

“Both candidates (Biden and Donald Trump) have their separate problems getting moderates to show up while playing to their base,” according to Jon Lieber, Eurasia’s head of research. “Biden has progressive Democrats who think he has not done enough on the climate, or student loans, or has done too much on Israel. It's not clear that it's a one-sided strategy,” he said.

Biden has just forgiven student loans and increased the top rate of income tax.

But he has also backed a $26 billion aid package to Israel, at the same time as Canada has halted arms shipments to Jerusalem.

On the border, Biden has shown a willingness to get tough. “Let’s shut down the border right now and fix it quickly,” he said before House Republicans nixed a bipartisan deal.

In Canada, Trudeau’s government presided over a 1.3 million increase in the country’s population last year, as temporary workers and international students flooded the country and contributed toward sharply raising shelter costs. (As Maher noted, the median cost of a home in the US is $346,000; in Canada, it is $487,000).

Defender of liberals

The Canadian prime minister was always much more of a kindred spirit with Biden’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Trudeau was invited for a state visit to Washington in spring 2016, when Obama all but passed him the baton as defender of the liberal economic order.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the moment was reminiscent of the scene in the movie “The Graduate,” where a young Benjamin Braddock is told the future is in plastics. The view was that Canada’s time had finally come.

Biden didn’t particularly buy into that mania, and Trudeau was never Robin to the president’s Batman the way he was with Obama.

Biden did follow Trudeau’s lead in appointing a gender-balanced cabinet.

When the president eventually visited Ottawa last spring, the two men made substantive agreements, particularly on the North American Aerospace Command and an integrated North American approach to clean energy, electric vehicles, and critical mineral development.

Still, there are perennial disagreements. Canada is plowing on with its plan to bring in a digital services tax that would hit US tech companies like Alphabet and Amazon. Washington opposes the move for singling out American firms.

There remains discontent about Canada’s military spending levels, even after last week’s budget announcement of increases that will see it spend 1.76% of GDP on defense by 2028, up from 1.4% now.

But any digressions are more political than policy-related.

The battle for moderates and independents

Biden’s path to reelection could hinge on his ability to win back blue-collar former Democratic voters in places like Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, which went with Donald Trump in 2020.

The president has touted an economic plan to use government investments to rebuild America’s manufacturing capacity, but many voters remain unconvinced after inflation touched 40-year highs.

Polling suggests widespread disappointment with Biden’s performance, even among strong supporters like Black and Hispanic voters. According to an AP-NORC poll last month, only 38% of voters approved of his performance, down from 61% three years ago. The numbers on the economy are worse.

In such an atmosphere, identifying too closely with the left in the culture wars when it comes to transgender policies, diversity, equity and inclusiveness, critical race theory, or on-campus anti-Israel protests would be toxic to Biden’s prospects. He has condemned the intimidation of Jewish students on college campuses. “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” Biden said Monday.

Despite Biden’s falling approval ratings, Trump has even more problems attracting moderate voters. Of the one-third of voters who self-identified as moderates in 2020, 62% voted for Biden and 36% for Trump. There are indications that a significant share of moderate Republicans will not do so again this time.

Recognition that he was out of line with public opinion likely prompted Trump’s surprise announcement that he would not sign a national abortion ban as president, even though he has called the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade “an incredible thing.”

The battle for the moderate and independent vote is firmly engaged, which explains Biden’s tacit acknowledgment of Maher’s point that going too far left could drive the people in the middle into the arms of his Republican opponents.

The story for Trudeau is different, which is not surprising. As Lieber noted, the Canadian electorate is generally to the left of that in the US. Trudeau faces Canadian voters next year, and polling evidence suggests voters have tired of the idiosyncracies that once amused them.

He hopes he can reconnect with young voters and continue to be the standard-bearer of woke culture, prioritizing the interests of historically marginalized racial, gender, and sexual identity groups.

To those special interests, he has now added millennials.

The most recent federal budget focused on the issue of “generational fairness” for people born since 1980, who Trudeau says are not being rewarded like their parents or grandparents. “That’s not right. It’s not fair,” he said.

The problem, as many critics pointed out, was that the Liberals campaigned on a “fairness” agenda in 2015. At that time, “fairness” meant helping the middle class keep more of their income.

That definition shifted over time to appeal to people engaged in the culture wars – a shift from the aspirational left to the identity left.

Millennials may scoff at the Damascene nature of the Liberal conversion to generational fairness. The Trudeau government has recorded eight consecutive budget deficits and doubled the national debt since coming to power – a liability that will be passed on to the generation whose interests it says it is now trying to promote.

One veteran Canadian political observer said the Trudeau Liberals are like an aging rock band that realizes too late that people don’t want to hear the new songs, so they go back to playing their greatest hits.

It remains to be seen whether millennials will give the Godfather of Woke an encore.


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