Drafting our Obama: A way to a new Liberal Vision

“Too many Liberals have made the cardinal mistake of believing that the NDP surge in the last election was a fluke. We are the natural alternative to the Conservatives, these Liberals say to themselves. When Canadians tire of the Conservatives, we will be the most reasonable option. Wait and work, these Liberals believe, for the political universe to return to its natural pattern of Conservatives and Liberals fighting for government.”

  • Will blue and orange squeeze out Bob Rae’s red?; By Jeffrey Simpson; Globe and Mail.com, Published Friday, Apr. 06, 2012 2:00AM EDT

So if one cannot tell, the title of this piece meant to be in part humorous. It pulls from a Washington Post Editorial called “Obama’s America is Canada”. Written in June of 2008, the piece provided the point of view of an American Conservative. The piece noted the “Canadian Record”. Before the American Banking Crisis, and the loss of their confidence, Canada was described as a “gentler, softer and more liberal nation”. Yet we had “less freedom, opportunity, prosperity, competition and dynamism. Canada is well-loved by other nations — but the country has little diplomatic or military clout.”

The piece goes on to mention the 2004 American Presidential Campaign. In it Senator John Kerry was mocked by his critics. They suggested that “He will be an ideal president — of France”. Similarly, the Post said that “Mr. Obama, too, is a great leader — of Canada.” For in their minds, “Americans have repeatedly demonstrated that they prefer individualism and freedom rather than the failing Canadian model of collectivism and comfort.”

Those comments were made before the American Banking Collapse or before the continuation of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet today, I find myself saying a similar thing. The only difference is there is some truth to the comment: We should draft “Obama” to lead the Liberal Party.

Now before the American Ambassador sends a letter to the Liberal Party; let me note that my reference to “Obama” actually deals with the experiences of the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Or put in another way, the Liberal Party has much to learn about running an opposition campaign that focuses on pragmatic solutions. There are a number of examples of this. Mayor Nenshi, in Calgary, could provide more evidence. So, in our search for a new leader, let us learn from Obama’s Story. In my opinion, Candidate Obama’s strongest attribute was not his use of the social media or the internet. Nor was it his fundraising abilities. The first African American President’s amazing success was his ability to frame his story.

Just contrast, Candidate Obama to another keynote speaker. In 2000, Harold Ford Jr. spoke to the Democratic Presidential Convention. He gave a rousing speech which everyone remembered. Mr. Ford in fact is still one of the most influential black men in the Democratic Party. He was a congressman from 1997 to 2007 and came from a political family. Harold is a lawyer, like Candidate Obama was. Additionally, being a Baptist, he knew the South. In many ways, Harold Ford was set for greatness and most people said so. And yet today, we talk about President Obama.

The difference was the story. Candidate Obama had a unique story and a unique way of telling it. His story touched on Kansas, Hawaii and Los Angeles. It continued on into Kenya, Indonesia, India and Pakistan. While, it ended up in Chicago via Massachusetts and New York, Mr. Obama was able to make it feel seamless. He was able to explain that he was not of one America but two: both Black and White. Candidate Obama then argued his duality was the same as that of the United States. Instead of being blue states or red states, we could be purple. This “unlikely story” outshone the words of decorated war hero. Those words connected him to a nation who though their best days were behind them. This is the type of candidate that we need.

However, what is most interesting about these words were that they were practiced. Through two books and through fifteen years of struggle, Barack Obama crafted a narrative that made his story simple and understandable. Through much effort, Barack Hussein Obama made his name seem as American as Hancock, Sedgwick, Jefferson, Hamilton or Washington.

If we were to look at our last number of leaders, they did not have that skill. Ignatieff, for example, wrote a book to explain his connection to this nation. However, he was unable to use any of it on the Campaign Trail. On that Trail, the message that got through was one of “Jets and Jails”. This for those who remember provided us with a third place showing. Mr. Dion, on the other hand, could not communicate his vision of a “Green Shift” and ignored his successes like the Clarity Act.

The unfortunate truth is that few members of caucus share that gift. One of the obvious exceptions is Bob Rae. His story has already been written, and in many ways, it is a glorious one. He has touched on some amazing projects. He was Chairperson of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and was an international peace negotiator in Sri Lanka. The Hon. Bob Rae has practiced law and been a Member of Parliament as both a New Democrat and a Liberal. He has been an Opposition Leader in Ontario and sat down to help negotiate the Charlottetown Accord in the 1990’s. The man has written a couple of books as well. Bob Rae is a Canadian Statesman and his accomplishments are truly impressive.

However, he has one skeleton: he was Premier of Ontario during the nineties. Now the truth of the matter was that Ontario has been having troubles ever since Canada negotiated the Free Trade Agreement in 1988. Premiers Peterson, Rae, Harris and McGuinty have had to deal with low efficiency, an unstable dollar, high debt levels and shifting capital. This has been so troublesome that it has sapped the popularity of most governments. In fact, only recently has Ontario had the resources, the capacity and the political will to fix the problem. Therefore, it would be unfair to paint Rae with it; just as it would unfair for anyone to blame members of the old Harris Government. For Mr. Baird, Mr. Clement and Mr.Flaherty were Cabinet Ministers under the Harris Years; while Peter Van Loan was the President of the Ontario PC Party.

Yet, we already know that Mr. Rae will be blamed by the Federal Tories since they have already started doing that. We, as Liberals, know this was going to happen so that is why we avoided Mr. Rae’s leadership twice. Instead, we choose Dion and Ignatieff.

Furthermore, if we look at the rest of the players, from either the present caucus or former caucus members; our party has not seen the creation of a new “Liberal” vision. Martha Hally Findley for example, piece in Policy Options “Not left, not right, but forward”, provides us with good feelings but does not deal with many hard realities. For example, where is “forward”? In the area of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Findley repeats “Our Past” and the present sins of the Tories. But that is it. There is not new path or idea for a path. Or put differently, the idea of the Middle Power was invented – by great men like Pearson, Diefenbaker and Trudeau – to guide Canadian foreign policy in a by-gone era; yet we have no way, no tools or no vision to renew out foreign affairs portfolio moving forward. I would argue that a view point could be created. As a party, we could argue for the “need to treat the Other with respect and veneration”; others might argue for the doctrine known as “the responsibility to protect”. Either way, we need a view point and Martha does not bring one. At best, she merely argues that we need to stake out a market based position that balances the social needs of society. However, from all indications, that position accounts for 20 to 25% of the electorate and we already have them.

John Duffy’s argument of going after Ontario and Quebec suffers from one problem: increasingly demographic pressures indicate that a balance of any majority is going to have to come from four provinces: Quebec, Ontario, BC and Alberta. So unlike Canadian history up until this point, where Ontario and Quebec alone had 75% of the population; now four provinces make up more than 75% of the population of the country. Consequently to win, the Liberal Party needs to be competitive in all four provinces.

If one questions this analysis, just look at every victory from 1993 to 2004. Every win was a result of a lock of Ontario and a strong showing in Quebec and BC. Or put differently, in 2004, the Liberal Party took 87% of the seats in Ontario. They came in second place, for seat count, in Quebec and BC, behind the Bloc Quebecois and the Conservative Party respectively.  With a handful of seats throughout the country we won a minority. However, by 2006, we only took 50% of the seats in Ontario and with that we lost our minority. With few changes in the rest of the country, our fate was sealed. So the truth is that we need a candidate that can rebuild the party in four very different provinces.

This is why we need to draft an “Obama”. As a Candidate, Obama was unconventional. Unlike, former Presidents Reagan, Carter, Clinton or Bush No. 2, Obama was not a former Governor. Unlike, Bush No. 1, Johnson, Ford or Nixon, Obama did not spend twenty years in Washington. Obama was not a power broker and he certainly did not have any family connections. All, he had was a story and ambition.

Just look at the budget battles in both Canada and the US. The NDP is arguing that the state is not doing enough, while the Conservatives have argued that the state is too big. This is remarkably similar to the US, where the Republicans want cuts to Government Expenditures, while Democrats want increases in Income Taxes for the 1%. It is easy to argue that the Conservative Party of Canada would love a situation where they only have to argue with the NDP. For the Conservative Party of Canada could just look towards models developed in the UK and US to retain power for a while.

An Obama-like leader could push beyond that partisan divide. He could become the adult in the room. If one looks at Mr. Obama in 2008, during the financial crisis, or in 2012, during the Budget Debate; Mr. Obama was always able to push away immediate troubles to look towards a balanced future. His story of coming together provided, and provides, an example through which he was able to transcend the immediate dilemmas. One could see the same trend in Canada Theoretically, a fresh leader could argue for a moderate approach. A new leader could argue for redefining government within the present fiscal condition. Alternatively, he or she could argue for a return to tax rates that existed under the Chretien-Martin years. Either way, they could make an argument that would relieve the squeeze being applied by the political right and left.

However, like Candidate Obama, this new leader would also have to be able to get beyond the current left-right view of government. He or she would have to take on the evolution of telecom and computer technology. For example, quite recently, about a year ago, I purchased an external hard drive. The box advertised a two year warranty and yet when I went to the website I was told that it was no longer valid. So I checked the warranty of another product and I found the same issue.

For those that think this is a new phenomenon; let me turn the clock back. In the 1970’s, Automobile Manufacturers were accused of several practices. They included Designed Obsolescence and Manufacturer Warranty Deception. Governments came to the fore and created regulation and oversight. This was done to protect Consumers from more powerful Manufacturers. The same could be done in the area of Computer Technology. For computer, hardware and software, are no longer designed to be repaired or to last for any period of time. It seems odd for citizens to buy products that will not last for any longer than a year. A new leader could jump into the fray and define new standards that are neither to the left or the right.

The same could be true of Intellectual Property, Telecom Regulation and the Creation of More Canadian Content. So unlike Martha Hall Findley’s Paper, a new Liberal leader would not focus on “Usual Suspects” like University Funding, Health Care and other Transfer Programmes. Instead, we would have a different conversation. Like Ireland, we could develop a competitive advantage through lessening Intellectual Property Provisions. Like Switzerland, Canada could develop “the world’s best, and the strong collaboration between the academic and business sectors, combined with high company spending on R&D, ensures that much of this research is translated into marketable products and processes.”

Through having those conversations, a new Leader can create his story. Then, he or she can help the party in its attempts to redevelop a strong and new voice on the policy issues that could be called the “Usual Suspects”. Only our “Obama” will have the freedom from history to redefine or refresh the Party and its brand. For our Obama would have to come from outside of the caucus, if not the party.

This is unusual in Canada and more so for the Liberal Party. For since the 1930’s, the Liberal Party has usually found itself in Government. Pearson, for example, was appointed to Cabinet before he won a seat in Parliament. While, Trudeau walked into a Cabinet post in Pearson’s Government. Both, Turner and Chretien spent a lifetime in Government. Even Michael Ignatieff and Stephane Dion served in Cabinet. Consequently, it is hard for us to think about looking for a leader with no cabinet experience.

From my research, Brian Mulroney is the only candidate in 100 years that was not funnelled through the system and he did not do badly. He held two consecutive majority governments and left the party in good stead. While, one might say that 21% in one of his last Gallup polls was low, I would say it was a great improvement. Mulroney’s numbers throughout his time as Prime Minister were notoriously low.  At one point, they dipped to 11%. However, it should be noted that once Mulroney left his post, the Party had resurgence in the polls. In fact, Kim Campbell’s poll numbers were equal to the Liberals at the beginning of the 1993 election campaign.

There is also an advantage to this strategy. As Danielle Smith, of Alberta’s Wildrose Party, has shown us; by not having a seat in a legislature, a Party Leader can build the party and not worry about the day to day action in the House. That “Seatless” Party Leader cannot be attacked for their House Attendance – as was the case for Ignatieff. Given our bench strength in the House, we could even manage to be in “two places at the same time”: in the House and on the trail rebuilding the House.

So it is important that our leader not come from the same old strain. The Potential Candidates might come from the private sector, the corporate world or the not-for-profit one. These people might have been a blue collar or white collar worker. They might have been a carpenter, an accountant or a teacher. However, they have to be able to tell their story and how it relates to our Party’s history. They need to be able to tell explain what it means to be a Liberal today. They need to explain how their history overlaps with Canadian history. Finally, our candidates to be leader need to be able to appeal to the largest four provinces. No caucus member to date has been able to do this. No former member of caucus has been able to do this either. But this is the leader that need.

My fear is simple: our Party is more interested in drafting Mr. Rae than creating a serious “5 to 10 year plan” for success. This is why I am pulling the “fire alarm” early and asking us to find our Obama.

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