Some Guys Have All The Luck
Without exception, a successful politician is a lucky politician. But some successful politicians are more successful, and luckier, than others. Stephen Harper is a very successful politician.
As an undistinguished former MP and head of a tiny activist group, Harper was hardly a formidable giant when he returned to federal politics, but years of fratricidal warfare had cleared the field of major figures and Harper easily defeated a wounded Stockwell Day to take the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. The maladroit Peter MacKay then weakened himself and the Progressive Conservatives, leading to a merger and another easy Harper victory over the wounded and the wan.
The lucky breaks kept coming. As the most successful finance minister in modern history, Paul Martin was expected to be a formidable Liberal leader and PM. Instead, he was Mr.
Dithers. Worse, Jean Chrétien had left the party the poisonous legacy of the sponsorship scandal.
Still, in the election of 2004, the inexperienced and wooden Stephen Harper only managed to land 29.6 per cent of the popular vote. Mr. Dithers staggered on.
In 2006, the Conservatives got 36.3 per cent of the popular vote. Stephen Harper became prime minister of a minority government.
Martin resigned. The Liberals replaced him with Stéphane Dion, a respected academic and cabinet minister – and perhaps the worst communicator in the history of Canadian politics.
Harper engineered an election for October, 2008. Against the hapless Dion, Harper managed to raise the Conservatives’ popular vote a grand total of 1.4 percentage points. But still, he was lucky. Had Harper waited even a little longer, he likely would have had to campaign in the midst of the gravest global economic crisis since the Great Depression – a crisis neither he nor anyone else saw coming.
Then there was the coalition debacle, which pitted Harper against a lame duck who had been humiliated at the polls mere weeks before and was still the worst communicator in the history of Canadian politics. You’ll never guess who won.
So the Liberals turned to the tall, handsome, articulate academic with the magnificent intellectual pedigree. It was a logical choice.
But in politics it is the ability to connect with voters that wins elections, not logic, and it slowly became evident that Michael Ignatieff was one of those mysterious and unfortunate politicians who seem to ooze charisma without actually having a drop of it in them.
Politicians can’t choose their opponents but Stephen Harper could not have chosen better opponents than the first three Liberals he squared off against.
And yet, Conservative support still stubbornly hovered around 36 per cent. Until the election and the Liberal collapse. On election day, the Conservatives took 39.6 per cent – a modest gain but enough to transform a minority into an unassailable majority thanks to our electoral system.
Best of all, the Liberals were replaced by the NDP, which meant Harper and his majority faced an official opposition that had never been official opposition. Neophytes filled the opposition benches. And the NDP had to straddle the dangerous divide between francophone Quebec and English Canada, as well as the divide between urban and rural ridings. This was the stuff of Stephen Harper’s daydreams.
There was one unfortunate twist, however. The new leader of the official opposition was a potent politician. Genuinely charismatic, likable, engaging, articulate in English and French. It seemed impossible that the NDP could seriously challenge the Conservatives for government but if anyone could make it happen, Jack Layton could.
And now? Both opposition parties are without leaders, and there are no obvious champions waiting in the wings for either.
The strength of Stephen Harper’s position cannot be exaggerated. After being found in contempt of Parliament, he came back stronger than ever. After decades of centralization, the prime minister’s office dominates government like never before. Unlike Jean Chrétien, he has no significant rivals in cabinet. The opposition is scattered and leaderless.
Stephen Harper is the most powerful prime minister ever.
I don’t mean to rob the man of his accomplishments. As I said at the outset, a successful politician is a lucky politician, and one could easily list the lucky breaks enjoyed by any politician who won and wielded power. Jean Chrétien. Brian Mulroney. Bill Clinton only became president because George H.W. Bush’s popularity soared after the Gulf War, scaring off leading Democratic hopefuls, and then crashed when recession struck. Pierre Trudeau owes the lion’s share of his legacy to Joe Clark’s bad math.
So it goes. As Rod Stewart crooned, some guys have all the luck.
It’s also important to recognize that luck doesn’t automatically produce success. A politician must have the wit and agility to seize opportunities when fortune blows them his way.
Stephen Harper had wit and agility. And luck. Heaps of it. Which is why he is a very successful politician.
The next time Harper plays the piano in public, he should forgo the Beatles and try a little Rod Stewart.