Saturday, August 11, 2007

What goes up must come down

The Telegram column today from Bill Rowe is worth reading. He makes the general argument from recent political history that political parties hit their lowest lows after reaching the highest highs.

For example, after the federal PCs knocking off the biggest majority in Canadian history, they were virtually wiped out just a couple of elections later. He points out the instructive case of the Smallwood Liberals too.

He writes:
There’s an unrestrained impulse among many involved in that all-consuming racket for overwhelming success. Success in moderation is not sufficient. It has to be absolute, over-the-top success even though such total triumph often carries with it the seeds of its own destruction ...

I’m not saying he will destroy his party as Mulroney did. But he could well push his party into the outer darkness for a couple of decades as Joey did. So, while he drives towards massive victory in October, Danny might well remember that leaders as lovable and powerful as he now is, incredible as that now seems, sowed the seeds of ruin by their overweening success.

Is that kind of political devastation a truism? Or is it the selective application of post-facto moral approbation?

Or is Rowe on to something?

The pattern is more subtle than just a party going from great heights to great lows. I think the pattern is closely related to the leadership which took them to the great heights achieved. The difference between the phenomena Rowe talks about and the normal exchange of parties in government comes down to an important factor: the leader style.

There are some successful parties where the success is institutional and party-based. Their leaders are not central of the party's identity and function. The strings of Alberta and Ontario Progressive Conservative dynastic governments provide the answer.

In both cases, the parties were able to select leader after leader who could take over the party and continue an unbroken string of electoral and government success. The successful elements which led them to multiple election wins under multiple leaders were centered in the party. Those parties had the ability to successfully self-renew their leadership without the trauma of electoral loss to force the issue.

The parties remained effective under multiple leaders through continuity of their structures and activists.

Mind you most of those leaders seemed pretty conventional with some exceptions, but that's part of the pattern too. These fairly conventional leaders left the issue of electoral success devolved to the party mechanism without needing to take it into their own hands. That way, the tools were in place for the next leader when they came along.

You would think that's the norm but it's not. When Turner came to power in 1984, he found the federal Liberal Party had virtually hollowed out. The reelection structures had settled do firmly in the Office of the Prime Minister that when Trudeau left, no reelection machine existed.

Under Smallwood, Smallwood was the party in every meaningful sense. Maurice Duplessis comes to mind too.

Under Mulroney, the PC machinery was so closely tied to Mulroney that, just like the Trudeau Liberals, when he retired so did they. Did you see any significant Mulroney era fixers on the Kim Campbell campaign?

So when you have an overwhelming personality occupying the top post, they, well, overwhelm the top post and the party they lead. More and more the independent party structures are populated by persons more loyal to leader than the party. And they operate less and less independently from the leader's office.

You will see the reelection machinery and the leader's office become one and the same.

So when the leader leaves, the machinery collapse because the focus is gone. In some cases in might take a decade or more but it can just as easily take just a term or two.

Strong leaders tend to crowd out strong party mechanisms. In this province, with the popular emphasis on personality over party of ideology, the leaders matter even more than in most places and the parties matter less except as tools of the leader.

Do you think this current Premier doesn't thoroughly and completely dominate his party, caucus and government? Just ask Fabian Manning or Elizabeth Marshall.

It's too simplistic to say these structural reasons are the only ones why the strong personalities leave political devastation in their wake. Sometimes, after a few years of the electorate having to submit to the intensity and heat of "strong leadership", people just want a break. Look at Moores after Smallwood and Wells after Peckford. So there are other factors that come into play too.

But overall, I have to say that Bill Rowe has pretty well nailed it.

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