Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hello Newman

Far be it for me to disagree with a respected historian like Peter C. Newman but…I’m going to disagree with Peter C. Newman.

In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Newman explains his theory of how Liberals choose their leaders:

If history doesn't exactly repeat itself, it sets significant patterns, such as the astonishing fact that the carpetbagging Mr. Ignatieff, after an absence from Canada for 30 years, finds himself after the briefest of apprenticeships in contention for the country's top political post.

Curiously, this has been the rule, not the exception. All of the Liberal leaders who became prime minister during the six decades between the 1920s and 1980s were also carpetbaggers - in the sense that they wrested the leadership from the party's veteran worthies, who were shoved aside for the newcomers.

Newman goes on to explain how Liberal leaders – from King to Martin, have fit into this outsider mould. And, at first glance, he does have a certain point. Like Ignatieff, St. Laurent, Pearson, and Trudeau were all recruited into politics and none of them were what you would call "typical" politicians. And in the case of Trudeau, like King, Newman's characterization of them wrestling the crown away from the “party’s veteran worthies” is certainly apt.

However, St. Laurent and Pearson were about as establishment as you can get. St. Laurent had 7 years in Cabinet before winning the party’s leadership in 1948, while Pearson had a decade as a Cabinet Minister before being anointed a decade later. These were not newcomers on the scene – rather, they’d been groomed as leaders-in-waiting for years.

Where Newman’s theory really hits pot holes though, is in recent times. Although he admits that Dion was a break from the pattern, he takes great pains to portray Turner, Chretien, and Martin as outsiders due to their brief breaks outside of the party (or, in Martin’s case, outside of Cabinet) before taking on the leadership. Yet all three were the embodiment of “veteran worthies” – lifelong Liberals, forever viewed as the party dauphin, who had 50 years in Ottawa between them prior to winning their respective leadership races. A few years at a Toronto law firm or on the party backbenches doesn’t change that in the least.

I also question how distinctly "Liberal" this leadership philosophy is. Stephen Harper and Newman's buddy Brian Mulroney were political outsiders when they inherited the Tory crown, while Kim Campbell and Joe Clark had only been MPs for four years when they took over. Sifting through the dust-bin of Tory leaders, you’ll also find that party’s habit of selecting provincial politicians over established Ottawa veterans.

But let’s put all that aside, and let Newman explain why this strategy has been successful:

All this hocus-pocus has been political sorcery of the highest order because instead of having to defend their predecessors' records, each freshly minted leader could innocently protest, "Who, me? I wasn't even there ..."

Again, portraying Louis St. Laurent as an agent of change after the King years seems like a bit of a stretch. And, hell, when you’re in power for 22 consecutive years and are considered the natural governing party, defending your predecessor’s record isn’t that hard to do. Yes, Paul Martin did try the “I wasn’t even there” line a few times, but that didn’t turn out so hot for him, now did it?

So, what’s the moral of all this? Ignatieff may mark a bit of a return to the party’s habit of recruiting from outside of its own ranks, but there’s no “secret Liberal recipe” to finding a good leader.

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  • Yeah Newman's article was bizarre, Ignatieff is BY FAR the LEAST experienced Liberal leader (in terms of legislative experience) in Canadian history (I believe every Conservative Party leader held more experience than him upon being elected as well). He's also the ONLY Liberal leader ever to have had NO prior cabinet experience so it's bizarre Newman thinks Ignatieff fits any kind of trend.

    It's funny that Cherniak and many other Liberals who supported Hillary Clinton said Obama didn't have enough experience to be President, when Obama had 9 years more legislative experience than Ignatieff who's inexperience people like Jason now conveniently ignore.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:37 PM  

  • I generally like Newman, but it seems he had an idea and then tried to make the facts fit the idea. What is true is that Ignatieff will be the first Liberal Leader without any cabinet experience.

    By Anonymous 1 Anxious Liberal, at 7:54 PM  

  • Love the "justin trudeau's father" tag...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:52 PM  

  • I think you have a solid critique on the truth of Newman's argument, but I think there IS something there. It isn't that new Liberal leaders are actually outsiders, but many of them have been marketed as such. This has been part of the Liberal recipe for success - enabling Liberals to escape the baggage of their predecessors. Of course horribly incompetent Conservative interregnums also played an important part of allowing for Liberal renewal.

    This makes Newman's notion that a Canadian desire for political outsiders explains the rise of Diefenbaker, Mulroney and Harper is also problematic. The perpetually out-of-power party doesn't have much baggage to escape, so what is the advantage of their running an outsider in the first place?

    Moreover, the "outsider" strategy has failed in the past. People simply didn't buy Turner or Martin as outsiders (indeed, in Martin's case, his attempts to distance himself from Chretien also inhibited his ability to take credit for the economy). Dion was an utter failure as leader, but certainly was a "different kind of politician".

    This isn't a unique Liberal or even Canadian thing either. If you look at the US every president has run as a "different kind of politician" since 1960, save Bush sr. and LBJ (both of them riding on the wave of a popular predecessor).

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 10:19 PM  

  • If you dispute Newman today? Who is left to dispute tomorrow?

    By Blogger James Bowie, at 10:39 PM  

  • All of the Liberal leaders who became prime minister during the six decades between the 1920s and 1980s were also carpetbaggers

    Um... as opposed to all the Liberal leaders who DIDN'T become prime ministers during those six decades?

    And good catch ... how is this a Liberal phenomenon? Other parties also seem to shove aside established candidates when someone shiny comes along.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 12:28 AM  

  • Shiny like Stockwell Day?

    It certainly seems this notion isn't unique to the Liberal Party.

    By Anonymous Deb, at 9:36 AM  

  • I don't think Newman's thesis holds up in regards to Mackenzie King either. When King won the leadership he may have looked like the underdog because he was not as old as the other candidates who were part of the Liberal establishment of the time.

    However, King was by no means a Liberal outsider or newcomer to the Liberal party. He was involved in Liberal politics through his father's involvement in the party during his youth, he served in Laurier's last cabinet, he ran the Liberal Information Office in 1911 and continued to run in every election after that.

    As usual, Newman's analysis is elitist. Even if a party always elected people from outside its establishment. So, what? This is a democracy, not an aristocracy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:25 AM  

  • Solid Seinfeld reference.

    By Blogger The Fwanksta, at 10:36 AM  

  • Mulroney may have been a Parliamentary outsider, but he was no political one, not by any stretch of the imagination.

    By Anonymous thessica, at 10:39 PM  

  • Actually, I'm in agreement with Newman. The federal Liberals from King onwards were outsiders - from outside the Liberal caucus. Yes, Dion was the exception, and he never got to be Prime Minister either (thank goodness). Minus the mindless 'stimulus' spending increases inserted into the federal budget, Iggy has done a good job so far, by and large, and has a shot at becoming Prime Minister some day.

    By Anonymous the muffin man, at 2:02 AM  

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