National AffairsPolitics

Leaders share a similar problem

By Susan Delacourt

Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that he’s headed for Washington next week. What will he and U.S. President Joe Biden be talking about, behind the scenes at the NATO summit?

Endurance might be one topic. It’s been a bad week for Trudeau and Biden – arguably their worst weeks – with increasingly open questions of whether either leader should be hanging on.

Their two situations are not exactly similar, but they speak to the pall hanging over progressive governments in Canada and the U.S. at the moment and how the discontent is rattling the very top of the Liberal party here and the Democrats south of the border.

For Trudeau, it was the Liberals’ loss in the Toronto-St. Paul’s byelection on June 24 that is being seen as a verdict on his leadership. For Biden, it was the incredibly weak performance in last Thursday night’s CNN debate with Donald Trump.

Now it’s not just their rivals saying they shouldn’t be the men to fight the next election, but people within their own party, too. That is a prime condition for political chaos: it’s rarely your enemies in politics who do you in; it’s your friends.

On Tuesday, a Democrat in the House of Representatives became the first lawmaker to say it publicly. Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett said in a statement that Biden should “make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw.”

In Canada, no MP has directly said that to Trudeau during calls the prime minister is making, sources say. But there have been a lot of panicked conversations and calls for meetings, including one Liberal MP, Wayne Long, saying in an open letter that “new leadership” is required.

The PM is still saying, as he told CBC on Canada Day, that he’s “committed” to the job he now holds and that there’s still lots to do.

There’s another thing Biden and Trudeau might want to discuss: the prospect of a Trump victory doesn’t seem as unthinkable to their voting publics as it might be to either leader. Trump has had a good week. Not only did Biden help make him look good, but the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision on presidential immunity that went Trump’s way, meaning he’s unlikely to be tried for the Jan. 6 insurrection before Americans go to the polls.

What’s worse for Biden is no one is listening to his warnings that Trump is dangerous to democracy. Incredibly, a Washington Post poll last week among swing-state voters showed that 44 per cent of the citizens there trusted Trump to better handle threats to democracy, compared to just 33 per cent who thought Biden was better placed.

A new Abacus poll in Canada contains echoes of that finding. In a survey conducted last week, Abacus asked about Canadian concerns with Trump’s potential election victory as a threat to democratic stability. Fewer than half – 41 per cent – said they were deeply concerned.

The contrast is especially sharp between Conservative supporters and those for other parties. Only 34 per cent of Conservative-leaning respondents said Trump could have an impact on democratic stability, compared to 59 per cent of Liberals and 67 per cent of New Democrats who view Trump as dangerous to democracy.
Overall, says Abacus CEO David Coletto, “the risk hasn’t really sunk in and I think that’s meaningful when it comes to the political implications here in Canada.”
Abacus also asked about how Canada’s international relationships might have to change if Trump wins. Canadians were either divided or neutral about how our economic ties should change under a Trump threat to democracy, with 31 per cent saying Canada should reduce its ties, 29 per cent saying it shouldn’t and 40 per cent with no leaning either way.

“Throughout the poll results, Conservatives in Canada are far less concerned and less wanting to see our relationship with the U.S. change if Trump is elected in November. I think this reflects the affinity some Conservative-oriented voters in Canada have for Trump and likely their belief that things could actually get better,” Coletto said.

The survey was conducted online with 1,900 Canadian adults from June 20 to 25. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is within 2.248 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Trudeau and Biden have been saying for some time that they’re confident that once the voters take a close look at the alternatives, the next election choice will be clear and it will land in their favour.

But after the past bad week for both of them, these leaders have to confront the possibility that the main existential threat weighing in the balance is to their own leadership, at least on the immediate horizon.

That’s no doubt something they probably should discuss when they get together in Washington next week.

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