Saturday, November 11, 2006

Coyne on Dion... Dean to follow

I look forward to Howard Dean waxing on about Canada for an hour; it will be interesting to see how his speech writers and him present the cross-border relationship, now that he's been DNC Chair for a while (with a nice big win in his hat).

I hope the closing speech of the Liberal convention is made by a triumphant Dion, someone who I hope Dean will acknowledge as a fellow progressive, thoughtful leader who's not affraid of a fight.

Andrew Coyne's Nov.11th National Post column is a nice piece of support for Dion:

The surprising Mr. Dion

Andrew Coyne, National Post
Published: Saturday, November 11, 2006

'For example, you are no doubt aware that France insisted on portioning the island of Mayotte from the Comoros at the time the latter gained independence because the residents of Mayotte unequivocally expressed their desire to maintain their link with France."

Well, it's not quite "we shall fight them on the beaches," but it was unquestionably Stephane Dion's finest hour: the guerre de plume with Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and other separatist luminaries in the tense aftermath of the 1995 referendum, in which the then Intergovernmental Affairs minister publicly demolished the legal and political arguments underpinning their claims of a unilateral right of secession.

It is for that, and the associated Clarity Act, that the owlish Mr. Dion is most renowned. Which makes him a rarity in Canadian politics: a candidate for high office whose rise to prominence was fuelled, not by back-stabbing his colleagues or the patronage of powerful families, but by closely reasoned arguments.

I stress: This is Canadian politics, where nice guys do not even get a decent burial, let alone the chance to finish last. Yet here we are, with three weeks to go until the Liberal leadership vote, and Mr. Dion -- decent, upright, clinically logical -- has as good a chance as any to win.

This was not supposed to happen. "Even Stephane Dion might be in the race" was the exasperated headline in Le Devoir at the news he was considering a run. A dogged adversary, even the nationalists had to concede, and a surprisingly passionate Environment minister, but come on: leader? Yet if Mr. Dion has exceeded expectations in this campaign, it has not been for parading his virtue, as the principled intellectual who floats above the fray. He has not campaigned as an "anti-politician," promising to "do politics differently" and otherwise advertising his disdain for his chosen profession. He has simply demonstrated a practical mastery of it.

"When Stephane Dion spoke, his [Cabinet] colleagues put down their coffees, stopped signing correspondence and listened attentively," Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Chretien's lifetime factotum, writes in his just-released memoirs. "He had learned a lot about government, a lot about politics, and a lot about how to get things done." This sounds right to me. Even as a political scientist, Mr. Dion's work had tended more to the applied than the theoretical. In office, his studies continued, only with himself as the research subject. He was learning how to do politics -- not differently, but better.

Or more precisely, how to do politics, while remaining true to himself. Other academics-turned-politician have not managed the transition well. Either they develop into barking partisans, in the mould of John McCallum or Irwin Cotler, self-consciously parodying themselves in the hope that everyone will get that they are playing a game. Or, like Michael Ignatieff, they shrink before our very eyes. The question Mr. Dion faced was how to advance as a politician without turning into a prancing buffoon: how to succeed in politics without becoming really trying.

The way to square that circle was not to play the game of politics, but to learn the art of being politic -- politics, in the best sense of the word. In Summer Meditations, written after he had been president of Czechoslovakia for a year, Vaclav Havel wrote of how surprisingly easy he had found the adjustment from dissident writer to practical politician -- he, who had dedicated his life to "living in truth." All it took, he wrote, was "taste." Or that's the word his translator used. Another word is "tact."

These are the skills Mr. Dion has acquired: of choosing your words carefully; of framing issues to your advantage; of showing different sides of yourself at different times, as events dictate and circumstances allow. Nothing in that requires one to be insincere or inauthentic -- you can be tactful without being guileful -- and so it is that he almost never rings a false note. Even when he boasts -- for example, that he has never had to retract or clarify a statement -- it is matter-of-fact, straightforward, the kind of thing you say in a job interview when asked to name your strengths.

The only question was whether Mr. Dion could attack, when the occasion demanded. We have seen that he can. What was it he said about Bob Rae's tenure as premier? That he had the worst record in the western world? That his disastrous experiment in deficit spending amounted to "giving Monopoly money to the people"? Harsh, yes. But unfair? No.

If there is a politician he resembles, it is Stephen Harper. I think Harper has perhaps the broader strategic vision, and a greater capacity for ruthlessness. But Dion is at least a match in analytical rigor, and far more disciplined. Both men get tagged with that lazy journalistic cliche, that they lack "charisma." But they are the furthest thing, either of them, from the cautious timeservers that would suggest. Both are risk-takers, aggressive in combat, unafraid of being unpopular, determined to prevail. The best minds of their parties, it would be a treat to watch them debate.

1 comment:

robedger said...

What a great article by Coyne.