The search for dream candidates can lead to political nightmares
The Back Page
IN JUNE 2003, a few brave Americans allowed themselves to dream.
Radio ads started to air in New Hampshire. The voices of a man and a woman lamenting the quality of the presidential candidates.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could create our own president?” the woman asks. “A real dream candidate?”
“Yeah!” the guy cheers up. “We’d make him really smart!”
She likes this game. “Rhodes Scholar! Oxford graduate! West Point graduate too. First
in his class! Vietnam combat veteran. Four-star general! Supreme allied commander of NATO. Just like President Eisenhower!”
You see where this is going, can’t you. Funny how hindsight is always 20-20.
The ads were from DraftWesleyClark.com, a group of perfectly sincere Americans. Their dream was born in New Hampshire. And New Hampshire is where, last Tuesday, the dream went down hard, like a sack of potatoes. Clark came in third in the state’s Democratic primary.
Which brings us to Belinda Stronach.
Every time a political party anywhere chooses a leader, there is a faction—usually the best-financed and most articulate faction—that polishes up and pushes onstage a candidate who is Electable. Any objection to the candidate’s obvious limitations is rebutted with an impatient variation on “Yeah, whatever. But the other guys can’t get elected.”
The logic is always the same. This guy Tony Clement, all he did was run Ontario’s health-care system during the SARS crisis. This guy Stephen Harper, all he did was help found Reform, lay the intellectual groundwork for the Clarity Act, take the lead in creating the Conservative party and rebuild the dignity of the Canadian Alliance.
Pikers, both of them. And they’re so ... geeky. What if we could create our own leader of a new party? A real dream candidate?
Yeah! We’d make her really... OK, reasonably smart! Started university! Related to a great entrepreneur! Stinking rich!
Oh, don’t you start with me. You know perfectly well that Stronach would not have won beach-blanket coverage in the nation’s papers and newscasts if she looked like, say, Tony Clement. Hey, where is Tony anyway? Oh, there he is in the corner, leaping up and down, flailing his arms, begging for our attention. Go away, Tony. We’ve found a dream candidate. She’s electable.
None of this is meant to denigrate Belinda Stronach’s decision to enter politics. We need more people getting into politics, not fewer. Well, probably not, but it sounds patriotic to say so. Anyway, Stronach should be considered on her merits. For all anyone knows she may be a competent administrator, bridge-builder, decisive leader.
But the electability argument is never an ode to the candidate’s merits. It’s just an attempt to bully the gullible—rank-and-file party members, political columnists—into ignoring the complex combination of flaws and merits that any candidate represents. The appeal to “electability” is, always and irredeemably, an appeal to the false pride that makes the political class believe it can outsmart the nitwit voter.
Oh sure, I know Wes Clark never ran for office before. Never had to make a case to a divided electorate. Never had to explain his position on a dozen divisive topics. But the average voter... well, he’s a bit slow, no? He’ll like the shiny buttons on the fancy uniform so much he won’t ask questions.
Belinda Stronach? Flash some ankle or a money clip and the rubes will forget they ever heard of Paul Martin. Stockwell Day? In 2000 a well-paid political columnist explained to me patiently that Day’s sex appeal would net him millions of women’s votes.
Because that’s the way women vote, isn’t it? “I’m not sure about this guy’s stance on abortion, social programs or the Middle East. But if I vote for him, he just might sleep with me.”
Last year, the wish for dream candidates led some conservatives to pine for Ontario’s Mike Harris or New Brunswick’s Bernard Lord, who at various moments have bestrode their provinces like colossi. Funny thing is, when they actually won the elections that made them dream candidates, nobody thought they were dream candidates. Lord was a Moncton lawyer. Harris was some kind of small-town sports pro. They were actually kind of... geeky.
Voters don’t go to the polls looking for a hero or a date. All they want is a plan and somebody they trust to implement it. Conservatives: please vote for Belinda Stronach if you think she would make the best prime minister for you. Your only hope is that we’ll agree. Don’t try to guess what the rest of us will fall for. That’s arrogant. It won’t pay. It never does. 171
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