Learning from failure, it’s often said, can lead to triumph. Some of the great leaders in history, from Napoleon to Steve Jobs, had crash-and-burn moments before breakthroughs (even if, in the former case, things didn’t ultimately go well).
Why don’t political parties get that? Why do they cling to tactics that keep them locked into cynical, outdated ways of attaining power?
The answer, it appears, is that they’re always pursuing short-term gain while ignoring the risk of long-term pain.
The latest to walk down this path is the Conservative Party of Canada. They are, ironically, doing exactly what the Liberal Party did before them – pinning their hopes for political revival on a charismatic leader.
The Conservatives, you will remember, went down to a sound defeat in the last federal election after holding power for a decade. Critics at the time agreed the party had lost its way, watering down its conservative principles in a desperate attempt to appeal to the greatest number of voters. Ultimately, with a leader who mailed in his campaign effort, the Conservatives lost the middle ground of voters, who shift their support to the political platform that makes the most sense.
Columnist Andrew Coyne, not everyone’s favourite conservative – at least among Conservatives – decried the decline of the party in an April 18 Maclean’s magazine online article. He blamed Stephen Harper for “the atrophying of conservatism as an intellectual force” and urged his fellow right-of-centres to get back to basics. “Rethinking conservatism does not mean reinvention so much as rediscovery, a return to first principles, yes, but also a fresh consideration of how they might be applied to current problems.”
The jury is still out on whether such soul-searching will occur but it appears unlikely. Instead, the Conservatives toyed with taking a moon-shot with the outrageous Kevin O’Leary, a kind of Trump-lite. Now that he showed the good sense to withdraw from the leadership race, party faithful seem poised to pick Maxime Bernier, a career politician who is: from Quebec, looks good, bilingual and promises to add a little spark to a rather drab party.
Yes, it’s pretty much exactly what the Liberal Party did in picking Justin Trudeau as its leader.
Bernier, to be clear, is no carbon copy of Trudeau. For one thing, he is a free-market libertarian — a critical policy point that may get less attention than his electability.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with picking a leader who could be attractive to voters. But both leading federal parties put their leadership cart before the ideological horse. For the Liberals, the gamble paid off – as long as you think your existential purpose is to gain power.
As we are gradually seeing post-Trudeau honeymoon, however, the Liberals aren’t the new party of “sunny ways” that their leader promised. Rather, they’re the same old pig with some fresh lipstick. As the Grits grow more comfortable with their grip on power, does anyone doubt that their old arrogance and indifference to voters will re-emerge?
Conservatives, on the other hand, should not feel smug. The opportunity to reflect and reposition the party is still real, but it will quickly fade if the party becomes convinced it has found a leader who can win. Only a sincere period of introspection will spare them from a fate like the one the ruling party appears to be steamrolling towards.
Parties, in case we forget, don’t exist to win elections. It’s the disease of our age that such thinking dominates the discourse. As upstarts like the Greens show, parties exist to present a vision of a better country and formulate policies that will help us get there. Sadly, any party that gets close to power seems to allow rhetoric to overpower principles, and charisma to overtake substance.
Parties may not feel this way but losing an election is a gift. It’s a chance to do a full reset and rediscover what the people think and want and need. The Conservatives have been given this gift. If they choose to squander the opportunity, it will be at their own peril.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.