Wells’s Rules, annotated

No. 2: If everyone in Ottawa knows something, it’s not true.


There have been questions about my Rules of Politics around here in the last few days. Okay, not a lot of questions, but still. Here is the full list of rules. About a year after I came up with the original two, I added two more, which was probably a mistake. Sometimes I come up with candidates for additions to the list, and here today I will reveal one I considered adding, before deciding against it. But I think it’s time to show a little discipline, so the canonical list will stop at four. Four shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be four. Ready?

1: For any given situation, Canadian politics will tend toward the least exciting possible outcome.

2: If everyone in Ottawa knows something, it’s not true.

3. The candidate in the best mood wins.

4. The guy who auditions for the role of opposition leader will get the job.

A few notes:

Obviously these rules divide into two sets of two. 3 and 4 give advice to candidates and political strategists; 1 and 2 are for the rest of us, especially Ottawa journalists. I wrote them at different moments. In the summer of 2003 Paul Martin was about to get an arithmetic lock on delegates for the Liberal leadership. But there would then be several weeks before the convention, and several more weeks after the convention (or at least everyone expected this; we were wrong: see Rule 2) between the convention and Chrétien’s departure. And all the smart people — people for whom I have the highest regard — were in a tizzy, because there would be a prime minister, see, and then there’d be this other guy who was certain to become prime minister soon, so there’d be divided legitimacy, and how could Chrétien govern, and…

I don’t want to make too much fun of this current of thought, because at the time it was nearly unanimous in Ottawa, and I felt like a jerk tossing cold water on it. My theory was simpler. Jean Chrétien would be prime minister until he stopped. Of course in the end a few threads did end up sticking out, and indeed there were anecdotes later about ministers (and, less forgiveably if true, public servants) checking with the Martin crowd before proceeding with projects under Chrétien. But that was below the surface, and the earth-shaking crisis of democratic legitimacy failed to show up.

We are very good at making up these grand theories about what’s about to happen. After they don’t happen, we are at least as good at forgetting our earlier mistaken certitude. In my time in Ottawa, I’ve had valued colleagues explain to me, with a straight face, that (a) the arrival of the Millennium in 2000 would transform Canadians into starry-eyed future-thinkers who would lose all patience with old-style politics; (b) the elimination of Quebec’s provincial deficit would give Lucien Bouchard the excited, motivated electorate he needed to call a winning secession referendum; (c) John Manley was about to quit the Chrétien cabinet to run as a maverick outsider against Paul Martin; (d) well, I could go on. Usually the gist of the theory is that Fate is about to confect a really amusing show for our delectation. But that’s not how history works, 9 times out of 10. The first two Rules attempt to codify this needed element of caution. 1: Don’t expect life to make your job fun for you. 2: Most people will ignore Rule 1, and that will lead again and again to a false consensus you should mistrust.

The other Rules revealed themselves slowly, over several months after Jean Charest won on his second attempt to get elected Premier of Quebec in the spring of 2003, and again when Dalton McGuinty whupped Ernie Eaves in the fall of that year. Why had two losers become winners? Well, both Charest and McGuinty had looked, four years earlier, like cranky little terriers, barking at the heels of the serious fellows who actually governed their provinces, Bouchard and Harris. In those earlier elections, the incumbents looked and sounded like people in the middle of important work who couldn’t be distracted by these junior-league interlopers. Then in 2003, something really striking happened in both elections. At the televised leaders’ debate, Charest looked great, cool and self-deprecating and in command of his files. The incumbent premier, Bernard Landry, was in a vile mood. Mostly he wanted to tell everyone what trouble Quebec would be in if Charest won. Same thing, or close to it, in Ontario. Ernie Eves had no project or ambition; he just wanted to tell everyone what trouble McGuinty would be. And McGuinty, who’d been woefully under-prepared on most files in 1999, was readier this time.

Obviously these things are path-dependent. One reason the candidate in the best mood wins is because a candidate who senses victory is just going to be in a better mood. But there’s also something inherent. Losers always complain about sunshiny mien of the winner, which is why Republican sympathizers these days can’t shut up about “President Hopey-Changey.” But he is president because he is hopey-changey. Republicans used to get that, or at least President Morning-in-America did. Chrétien vs. Campbell? Happy simple guy won. Chrétien 1997? He was less certain and he lost some of his lead. And so on. Harper-Dion? It really isn’t easy to be more of a cranky bastard than Harper, but by God, Dion was up to it.

So Rule 3 tells candidates, don’t let yourself get angry and negative. And Rule 4 tells them, Hey, don’t let yourself get angry and negative. And also, talk about your own agenda, not the other guy’s. Because who talks about the other guy’s agenda? The guy who’s going to watch the other guy govern, that’s who.

So those are the rules. Every once in a while somebody writes triumphantly to say that this or that event Disproves One of Your Rules, Mr. Smart-Ass Wells! To which I reply: It sure does. I flunked out of second-year chemistry. These aren’t Newton’s Laws, I’m just a columnist. Also every once in a while, I think of something that looks, for a while, like a potential Fifth Rule. Recently I toyed with this one, inspired by our own Maclean’s comment boards, in which an endless succession of blind partisans cheerfully accuse one another of bias:

Bias is always easy to spot, except in the mirror.

Here’s why I don’t add this one to the list. First, it’s true, so nobody will think it applies to them. “Ah-ha!” they’ll say. “Wells’s Fifth Rule proves that you’re biased! And so is Wells! And that noted Liberal/Conservative (pick one) hack Bob Fife! And….” So I’d just be wasting my virtual breath.

But more important than that, four is already a long list. So four it is. And I think I’m done explaining myself on this.

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