Successful Politicians Avoid Novelty
If there's one thing voters won't stand for in these jaded times it's old-school politics and old-style politicians. Ask anybody. They'll tell you they see right through those glad-handers with their easy smiles and business suits and greying-at-the-temples style. A scan around Canada's contemporary political scene will show - won't it? - that the day of the traditional politician is done.
Start with a short list of the most successful politicians of the moment. B.C. Premier Gordon CAMPBELL stands out. His sustained dominance in polls suggests he's tamed his province's notoriously tempestuous politics. Except, well, Campbell does look like a bit of a throwback: silver-haired, buttoned-down, cautiously effective, and with suspiciously white teeth.
Moving east, the next undeniable success is Gary DOER, Manitoba's first three-term premier since the 1960s. Mind you, Doer doesn't quite prove our point either. Despite a union-leader background, he dresses and talks like the quintessential board of trade luncheon speaker. And, like Campbell, he was born in 1948, planting him squarely in the not-too-young, not-too-old demographic, favoured by political handlers everywhere.
The only other serving premier who can't be left off the list is Newfoundland's Danny WILLIAMS, now threatening to take every seat in the province's Oct. 9 election. Williams is beloved for his fiery Newfoundland nationalism, but his bluster comes in a reassuringly CEOish package. Just two years younger than Campbell and Doer, Williams is a former Rhodes Scholar, lawyer and businessman. He's got the hair, suits and smile, too.
There seems to be a pattern here, and it's not about "doing politics differently," to recall the old Kim CAMPBELL slogan. Consider the flip side, the track records of politicians who rose on the strength of their outside-the-box attributes, starting with Campbell leading the Tories to near oblivion in 1993. (Now that was different.) Other women who broke through in leadership races also tended to run election campaigns that broke down, from Lyn McLeod in Ontario politics, to the misadventures of Audrey MCLAUGHLIN and Alexa MCDONOUGH at the helm of the federal NDP.
Men who didn't match up with any image stereotypes, from Stockwell Day to André Boisclair, haven't fared any better. Day and Boisclair both lost to opponents who seemed threadbare to many pundits. Voters, however, apparently just found them comfortably worn in. Parties that gamble on a leader too novel for voters to shrug off often end up regretting their bold choice on the morning after election night.
The most visible, not to mention vulnerable, unconventional politician on the federal stage today is Stéphane DION. He won the Liberal leadership thanks to younger party members drawn to him precisely because he wasn't the easy choice. The establishment lined up behind Michael Ignatieff and Bob RAE. Dion's gang bought his message: make environment policy as central to the Liberal platform as social programs and economic management. His lack of top-flight political skills - whether in the House or, more importantly, on television - didn't put them off. Styling themselves insurgents in their own party, they wore black "Dionista" T-shirts. Some still do, as their man continues to look like a long shot.
But those Liberal activists had seen Dion close up. They are now learning that for Canadians who catch sight of him only fleetingly on TV, he is not automatically recognizable as a potential prime minister. Compounding his image problem is the related fact that as a wonkish ex-professor, he lacks experience when it comes to political organization. It shows, although his reported decision to shake up his team's top ranks this week suggests that at least Dion might possess an instinct for cutting his losses.
Adjusting his public persona could prove trickier than overhauling his machine. The danger with any image makeover is that it might only succeed in making a leader look inauthentic. On the other hand, Dion need not look far to see how it can be done. Stephen HARPER once appeared to be a right-wing policy wonk with a weakness for venting on op-ed pages. On policy, he used the new Conservatives' founding policy convention in March 2005 to permanently moderate his message. On his image, the turning point came more than a year earlier, when he declared for the Conservative leadership, calling attention as never before to his average-guy upbringing and spotlighting his folks-next-door wife and kids. "My worries are your worries," he said. "My interests are your interests."
Dion may also need to find a way to highlight an approachable element of a persona that remains just out of reach. Would drawing attention to his close relationship with his adopted daughter strike voters as crass, or as human? He can't keep on being just about ideas and hope to connect.
Harper has also shown how a disciplined approach to every speech, staged event and news conference can incrementally alter what seem to be entrenched impressions. His aim is the opposite of igniting excitement. He strives to come off, at every turn, as a steady, mainstream politician. Dion's image issues are different. But the solution might be similar: make every outing another example of no-nonsense professionalism.
No unified field theory of political leadership ever entirely survives the laboratory of close scrutiny. A sweeping claim that conventional politicians always beat unconventional ones is no exception. Pollsters and party pros alike will point out glaring exceptions. Pierre TRUDEAU was no cookie-cutter candidate. Yet after his Liberals were reduced to a minority in 1972, even he turned to tacticians like Keith Davey to recreate himself as a much more traditional campaigner.
In the U.S., Barack Obama is now testing the tension between being a breakthrough black contender and a conventional campaigner. Beside that example, Dion's challenge - to discover and show off his inner old-style politician - hardly looks like a stretch.
Maclean's October 15, 2007