What Justin Trudeau can learn from Bill Clinton’s presidency

Having just ended nine years of conservative rule, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should look south, and learn from former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s successes — and failures.

In 1993, Clinton — like Trudeau, a young, charismatic liberal — ended 12 years of conservative governance in the United States. The comedian Dennis Miller, celebrating the Baby Boomers’ emergence, gushed, “finally, one of our guys is drivin’ the car.”

Unfortunately, Clinton drove too confidently at first, careening into ruts regarding gays in the military and cabinet appointees with nanny troubles. With annoyed reporters and a muddled agenda, as mini-scandals became maxi-headaches, many proclaimed Clinton a failure. But Clinton also passed a budget bill that fostered the 1990s prosperity, ratified the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement and hosted the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords signing.

A charismatic leader who has just won an election must shift gears, remembering that elections are sprints, governing is a marathon. Candidates must be nimble, reactive, headline-sensitive. Policy-making, however, is a slog, with harsh headlines inevitable.

In the Clinton White House, campaign kids like George Stephanopoulos lobbied hard to fulfill political promises quickly, and were devastated when friendly reporters turned critical. Professional grown-ups like Leon Panetta kept the government running. The White House staff “was too big and too loose, and there were all these children,” cocky wiseacres enjoying their first real jobs, the 62-year-old budget whiz Alice Rivlin remarked.

“Don’t confuse motion with progress,” the New York Times advised, as Clinton rushed from initiative to initiative, shifting abruptly when criticized, aiming to please, trying to do it all at once.

The 46-year-old Clinton couldn’t ignore his critics. This need to please reporters led Clinton into what he now calls “the worst presidential decision I ever made”: authorizing a special prosecutor. Clinton hoped to calm the headlines, hoping “we can get back to work.” Instead, this decision doomed the Clinton presidency to seven years of relentless investigations.

More substantively, Trudeau should learn from Clinton how to play to the centre. Trudeau must remember why conservatives governed for so long and why the Liberal Party imploded. Trudeau should triangulate, not to play to polls, but to renew his party’s vision, synthesizing the more generous, more expansive Canada he promised, with the more responsible, realistic Canada Stephen Harper had tried to foster.

Clinton’s mantra for 21st century liberalism could help. Clinton wanted to “widen the circle of opportunity, deepen the meaning of freedom, and strengthen the bonds of our community.” Clinton struggled with the meaning of freedom, in a culture often seeking freedom from any kind of meaning. Both “opportunity” and “freedom” served as solvents in the modern world, undermining “community,” promoting irresponsibility.

Clinton sought pluralism with some internal cohesion and without balkanization. He wanted to protect individuals’ freedom and opportunity, now accelerating at warp speed on the information superhighway, from spinning off into libertinism, hedonism and a corrosive selfishness. And without a stable, well-distributed, more equitable economic foundation, without meaningful work and living wages for as many as possible, he feared too many citizens would suffer. In foreign policy, he learned to fight terrorism and injustice more aggressively than he expected, because the Rwanda genocidetaught him that when democracies retreat, evil fills the resulting vacuum.

Trudeau, and all Canadians, face similar challenges. Governance is a balancing act. Dwight Eisenhower warned his successor John Kennedy, that the easy decisions get made elsewhere, only the hard choices end up on the Oval Office desk.

Today, doctrinaire ideologies will be no less effective than finger-in-the-wind improvisations. As a charismatic leader, Trudeau will be an effective salesman, but only if he peddles a thoughtful, balanced product to help Canada find ballast during these confusing times.