Canadian politics is obsessed with horse races but suspicious of winners. Eventually suspicion curdles into contempt. At the National Post I used to get letters from readers eager to explain to me that Jean Chrétien was a fool or a bully. I have grown used to emails and tweets explaining the same thing, in similar terms, about Stephen Harper.
Both men have been bullies and sometimes less than wise, but if politics is more than a crap shoot, surely both were good at it. Here’s the thing about winning: in elected politics you can accomplish nothing else until you win. The Chrétien and Harper legacies will be debated for decades. It’s the tribute posterity pays to power.
But we can also learn something about victory from losers, if they are honest. Brian Topp and Michael Ignatieff are. Topp was campaign director for Adrian Dix when the B.C. NDP leader managed to blow a comfortable lead and lose the provincial election in May. Michael Ignatieff led the federal Liberals to their worst result ever in 2011. His book Fire and Ashes is his account of his odd tenure in politics.
You can find Topp’s memo, in two drafts, on the blog Pundits Guide. It is full of specific lessons for the next campaign, should the party’s next leader choose to heed them. Topp found his candidate way too chatty, improvised and gentle. “In focus groups held in the midway point in the campaign . . . when it came time to recall what Adrian Dix and the B.C. NDP’s message was, no participant could do so,” he laments.
What follows is the sort of stuff that depresses some people about politics. To succeed, Topp writes, a leader’s message must be “crisp, direct and repetitive.” What kind of speeches should he deliver? “Prepared speeches.” What sort of answers dilute the message? “Detailed and wide-ranging answers.” What’s the job of media relations? “Control over the media’s access to the leader.” Should scrums be common or rare? “Rare.” What should campaign messaging do better? “Discrediting our opponent.”
I read one newspaper column that contrasted Topp’s advice with the way Jack Layton used to run a campaign, but any contrast seems based on false memory. Layton was a message discipline machine, sometimes punishingly repetitive on key themes. He cut down substantially on his number of daily public appearances over the course of his four national campaigns. And he ran a full slate of ads mocking the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc every time he ran. None of those techniques guarantees success. But they seem to help, which is why they’ve become widespread, and not only in Canada.
Ignatieff preferred a set of mystic hunches about politics, and having lost everything, apparently he still does. Fire and Ashes is a charming book, frank and funny. But politics remains a perfect mystery to Ignatieff. “There are no techniques in politics,” he writes, astonishingly, near the end, and it’s fair to say that if there are any, he rejected them whenever he spotted one. It may be hereditary. His father, the diplomat and courtier George Ignatieff, worked with the most durably successful prime minister in the history of the breed, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and found the experience distasteful. “My father marvelled at King’s mastery of dissimulation,” he writes. “It seemed to be the essence of the political life, but my father wanted no part of it.”
Unelected high office would have suited George Ignatieff fine, on the other hand. But Pierre Trudeau made Ed Schreyer governor general in 1979 instead, and Ignatieff’s father was “crushed . . . watching my father recover in the years afterward was perhaps my earliest education in resilience.” It’s a classic Canadian story. Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?
Coaxed into politics by Toronto-based Liberal malcontents, Ignatieff spends the book in search of acceptance. “I was about to spend the next five years of my life in a state of constant dependence on the opinion of others,” he writes. “How do you think I am doing? My own answers to this question scarcely mattered.”
He offers no extended analysis of Harper. No question of public policy seems to interest him particularly. He threatened an election over Employment Insurance in 2009, held a day of crisis meetings with Harper. His book contains 14 words on the issue.
“The cynics will say that big thinking is a typical delusion of intellectuals foolish enough to try their luck in politics,” he writes. “This fails to appreciate the decisive role that ideas can play in”—In what? Improving lives? Lifting a nation closer to justice? Hardly. “Defining a candidate, and in bringing people over to your side,” is the way Ignatieff ends the sentence. At the 2006 convention, he sought “a moment of pure recognition” in which he would be “seen—and accepted—for what I actually was.”
He fetishizes direct contact with voters, which seem to count as moments of authenticity, but the characters and scenes come across as stage dressing: “the Italian carpenters who hammered in lawn signs,” the “wharves where the lobster pots were drying.” After he loses everything, he says to himself, “So this is politics.” A lot of people had hoped he’d figured out what politics was before then.
To people who never win, the political craft seems mysterious and unseemly. The lessons learned by people like Topp are routinely rejected by people like Ignatieff. People like Harper count on it.
For more Paul Wells, visit his blog