Monday, August 13, 2012

Baseball and politics

Two columns today with similar themes. Tim Harper's in the Star.

And this one in the Hill Times that is a letter to the editor but is really like an op-ed. Written by William Cowie of Ottawa who is not just your run of the mill letter writer, look him up. I liked the baseball metaphor here very much, although I'm not quite sure it's exactly right. I will reproduce it here since it's behind the paywall and deserves a read:
Bob Rae’s impending departure as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in one year’s time bears the hallmarks of a party narrative gone wrong, not just as reflected in its recent defeat, but in the more recent story it tells itself about the kind of leadership Liberals see as required to rebuild and renew. This leader narrative is drawn from the Liberal historical record in recognition that they have been down before; and that despite seeming crushing defeats—Diefenbaker in 1958, Mulroney in 1984, they come back again. It is believed a game plan can be reconstructed and with proper field play, supplemented with modern Obama-like political mobilization techniques, the power contest can be won.

For Liberals, what is the leadership narrative that is drawn from the historical record? It is, no surprise, the Pierre Trudeau narrative. It is the story of a charismatic, populist leader who promoted a modern Canada that was seen as cosmopolitan; displaying of youthful vigour; that had a touch of irreverence for an old order with a firm and steely will—“just watch me”—anchored in a strong vision for a forward looking and internationally engaged Canada. An activist/intellectual, he represented a modern form of late 20th century renaissance man in the political arena.

Ultimately, youth and vigour drove the Trudeau Liberal surge, facilitated by a ’60s generation that was looking to change the order of things. Symbolically, the Liberal Party’s, and Trudeau’s, legacy was ultimately expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the consummate statement of the spirit of individual rights that was so much the message of his time. It is an attractive story line.

But there is another leadership history. It is the history of baseball loving Lester Pearson. It was the history of a leader who was a First World War veteran engaged in political trench warfare with the Conservatives from 1958 to 1968. He was the non-Trudeau.

Lester Pearson came on the scene as an experienced international diplomat after being immersed, at the very highest level, in the geopolitics of his time. No media star, he was the able and mild-mannered bureaucrat who spent 10 years between 1958 and 1968 rebuilding the Liberal Party while engaging in pitched battles with the Conservatives for the hearts and minds of the nation. In that period he laid the groundwork for modern Canada, but more significantly provided the fertile ground for the training of a next generation of politicians that came to govern Canada for the next 28 of 44 years since 1968. Pearson was an opening pitcher on a weaker side in a high stakes political game, but he kept the team in the game when it was down, slowly built it into a contender and eventually saw it turned over to a closer—Pierre Trudeau. Pearson loaded the bases and Trudeau hit the home run.

As the Liberals look to rebuild one needs to ask if they are not learning from the wrong history. Today, experience is seen as a liability (masked in the jargon of being ‘too old’). At a time in Canadian history when competitive threats and global repositioning pose the most severe challenge to Canada since the Second World War media star presence seems more important for Liberals than gravitas. Rather than turn to seasoned veterans of the domestic and international political scene like Bob Rae who have power bases from which to draw and know the strengths and weaknesses of a system that is in desperate need of changing, the preference is for a younger less politically rooted neophyte who will not have the political constituency and savvy to manage a very complex power game for many more years.

In short the Liberals are drawing on the wrong history. They need Pearsonian depth and sophistication in a leader with an ability to handle the media. They need a new opening pitcher, not a closer. They had it in Bob Rae, but he was forced off the mound.
I mean, I like the opening pitcher metaphor too but there are good young starters who do come along. Think Mark Buehrle, for example. (I do know some baseball, cough.) Pretty much good from the start and over the long haul.

Anyway, I don't think the baseball analogy is a perfect one. If the suggestion here is that Justin is a closer, maybe no. Maybe he's actually a Buehrle type.

And I'm not sure about the historical precedents. It's hard to quibble with the Pearson c.v. and experience as being absolute goods. But how do such persons fare in our modern politics? How did Allan Rock do in leadership? How is Chris Alexander doing? How would a Mark Carney really fare in the rough and tumble? Do such credentials mean as much? I'm not discounting them, not at all. But there is more needed these days and we shouldn't get locked into thinking there is one model of a leader who will work.

Perhaps another question is whether the party machine itself in fact matters much more than the person. Or at least as much.

Great letter, prompting much thought.