There is no beginner’s luck in political leadership

If you want be leader, you should have some chance of winning
MACLEANS-LIBERAL ELECTION NIGHT-05.02.11-TORONTO, ONTARIO: A vacant Liberal party platform and podium during the 2011 federal election night, in downtown Toronto, Ontario.
Liberals face tough test in the muddled middle
Photograph by Cole Garside

Alice Funke watches the Liberal debate in Mississauga.

While it’s become fashionable to champion the value that political neophytes could bring to our system of governance, yesterday’s debate clearly demonstrated how politics is a trade that takes considerable skill and experience to do well in; and that not enough of those on stage have completed a sufficient apprenticeship inside or outside of politics to pass muster for the top job. They will need to sharpen up their offerings considerably to justify the expense and effort of staying in the race. It could be that their best contribution to party renewal at this point is to withdraw.

It doesn’t feel great to be on the side arguing against political participation, but I tend to agree. Even if the worst that can be said about neophytes is that they’re taking up space and time on stage at a half dozen debates.

If you’re running for the leadership of a major political party, you should first aim to have some chance of winning. The Liberal leadership race features four individuals who have never held federal elected office—Karen McCrimmon, Deborah Coyne, George Takach and David Bertschi. Ignoring all other criteria, neither history nor common sense are on their sides.

The Liberal party has had nine full leaders since Wilfrid Laurier. All nine were MPs at some point before becoming leader (Jean Chrétien, John Turner and Mackenzie King stepped away from politics before returning to seek the leadership). Eight of them were cabinet ministers before becoming party leader. The other was Michael Ignatieff (an MP for three years before assuming the leadership, it didn’t end well).

There is plenty of history of party leaders not having seats at the time of becoming leader, but there’s not much history of individuals not having ever won a seat before becoming leader and then going on to become prime minister. Basically, there’s Brian Mulroney (who’d run once for leader already before winning). The three most successful federal leaders of the last twenty years were/are career politicians: Mr. Chretien, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. That shouldn’t be surprising. Politics, let alone leading a national political party, is difficult. Doing it well requires talent, time, experience, effort and perseverance.

So if you’re running for leader of a national party as an unelected citizen who has never before held a seat in the House of Commons, you can’t point to much in the way of precedent to justify your candidacy. You also probably can’t point to another line of work in which major institutions regularly choose inexperienced outsiders as leaders. So how else might you justify your presence? Perhaps with a unique political resume (think Brian Topp). Perhaps with a unique agenda (think Ron Paul’s libertarianism). Perhaps with a unique celebrity status (think Michael Ignatieff in 2006).

There is a certain amount of presumptuousness that comes with running for leader of a party. The trouble comes when that presumptuousness seems to challenge reason. And if you can’t claim a reasonable chance of winning, the challenge is to justify your existence. (Ron Paul is the best example of this.)

You could argue that the Liberal party, given its desperate state, should be entertaining all possibilities. But, by the same token, why would a desperate party use possibly its last, decent shot at reviving itself to gamble on an individual who has never before held elected office? To make that case, you need to be able to say a lot for yourself.