Will Peter MacKay return? Can he?

Charlie Gillis on the risks and rewards of time spent on the sidelines

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

He’s being coy on the matter of a comeback, but Peter MacKay isn’t exactly slamming the door, either. “The time has come for me to step back from public life and concentrate on my young and growing family,” he said, in what to many ears is the signature phrase of a political aspirant biding his time. So, as long as he avoids the n-word of politics—“never”—the questions are bound to linger: Will Peter MacKay return? Can he?

History is replete with leaders who spent time on the sidelines before returning to take a run at power, from Teddy Roosevelt to John Turner. The move can be salutary, blurring one’s past associations with an unpopular government, or a leader who has lost the confidence of party members. But it also carries its risks. The voters forget about you. Your party contacts weaken. Wait too long, and you return to a political landscape where old tactics and strategies no longer work.

Turner, the one-time Liberal golden boy, could be considered an example of both. When he bolted Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1975, it initially appeared to work in his favour, says Paul Litt, a historian at Carleton University and author of Elusive Destiny: the Political Vocation of John Napier Turner. “He was unhappy with the general policy drift of the government, and strategically, he was thinking, ‘Is this something I want to be associated with? Or can I leave with my political capital intact?’ ” The downside to staying was obvious: “In politics, bad things can happen all the time for reasons that are not even your fault,” says Litt. The longer Turner remained in Parliament, the greater the risk that the Trudeau government’s real or perceived failures would start to stick to him.

So Turner took a job with a Bay Street law firm, and the move initially appeared to work, distancing him in the public mind from a regime that managed to incur wrath in both Quebec and the West. After Turner returned to win the Liberal leadership in 1984, polls showed him leading the Progressive Conservatives and their newly anointed leader, Brian Mulroney. But the honeymoon didn’t last.

Litt ascribes the Liberals’ devastating loss in that summer’s campaign in part to Turner’s rustiness—on the stump and in the televised debate, he appeared unready for the polished, TV-friendly Mulroney. Timing played a key part, too. It was all too easy for Mulroney to stick Turner with scandals that the Liberals had accumulated over the years, culminating their famous debate exchange over a raft of recent Trudeau patronage appointments that Turner had approved. In what is widely seen as the turning point of the campaign, Mulroney jabbed an accusing finger at Turner, charging, “You had an option, sir!”

Here lies perhaps the simplest lesson for the politician waiting in the wings. It’s best to come back just as the other side wears out its welcome, not when yours has. Had Jean Chrétien beaten Turner for the Grit leadership back in 1984, it’s conceivable he’d have been buried as deeply beneath the PC landslide as his long-time party rival. Instead, Chrétien lost the leadership and resigned his seat two years later, leaving Turner to carry the can through the tumult of the Meech Lake negotiations and the hard-fought free-trade election of 1988. By the time Chrétien made his comeback in 1990, it was the Tories who were sagging under the weight of patronage scandals, regional discord and widespread distrust of Mulroney. The result: a 177-seat Liberal majority, compared to a two-seat Tory rump, in the 1993 federal election.

There are, of course, exceptions. Stephen Azzi, a political scientist at Carleton, points to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who two years ago brought the provincial Liberals back from near-death. Clark had been deputy premier in the government of Gordon Campbell, then left in 2005 to make a failed run for mayor of Vancouver, and to work as a talk-radio host. Her departure separated her in the public mind from a premier whose approval ratings by 2010 would sink to 12 per cent, says Azzi. And her timing proved impeccable, as the B.C. NDP, led by the gaffe-prone Adrian Dix, imploded on the campaign trail.

That belief in voters’ capacity to hit reset—to see old political faces in a new light—keeps many a politician in the game when, officially, they’ve left it. Ronald Reagan twice failed to win the Republican nomination, in 1968 and 1972, before becoming the oldest man elected U.S. president. Hillary Clinton walked away from the prestigious job of U.S. secretary of state even before her old boss, President Barack Obama, was re-elected in 2012. Her time away allowed her gauge interest in a second run at the Democratic nomination, and to start raising money for the gruelling and inconceivably expensive U.S. election cycle.

Still, here in Canada, Azzi counts at least two failures for every success. There’s Jim Prentice, the former Harper cabinet minister who left politics for a job as a bank executive, then returned to be crushed in the recent Alberta election. There’s Robert Winters, a successful businessman who got back into Liberal politics just in time to be trodden under by Trudeaumania. Frank McKenna left provincial politics in New Brunswick, and was poised to jump into the federal scene, but his moment never came.

For that reason and more, Azzi thinks MacKay’s prospects are slim, should he wish to return. “His following in the party is largely composed of old Progressive Conservatives, and their number is small and shrinking,” Azzi says. “He is not going to increase his following by leaving the political scene. This is very much the party of Stephen Harper, John Baird, and Jason Kenney. The longer MacKay’s out, the weaker his position will be.”

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