Wells's Rules, annotated - Macleans.ca

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.

Filed under:

Wells’s Rules, annotated

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

    Ah I see, so thats what Harpers up to.

  2. Well, I'll say this: the Conservative government did itself more good this morning, when Jim Flaherty went out and did some harmless populism on credit-card rules (and, potentially, some genuine good on enhancing public financial literacy) than they have with all the brooding cranky finger-pointing in recent months. Flaherty sounded like a government minister today. It had been a while.

  3. About #4….

    I guess Harper would have been smart to take the keys to Stornaway when offered then?

  4. I still think "Being Prime Minister is so much better than not being Prime Minister" is a classic. It clarified a lot for me when I first absorbed it, and I go back to it as some people go back to the Psalms.

  5. "It really isn't easy to be more of a cranky bastard than Harper, but by God, Dion was up to it."

    I felt something was missing from this post, until I read THAT. Brilliant.

    Four it is, Mr. Wells.

  6. Rule 4 applies particularly well to the 2006 federal election.

  7. Do we get a chance to stick a guns-in-national-parks amendment on the bottom ?

  8. You're lying about bias, because you're biased.

  9. You're looking for a fifth business, of sorts?

  10. OK, so here's a Rule that can only be settled by Science, the science of online polling, of course. Sure there's a grammar book out there somewhere, but really, come on — books? Puh-leaze.

    Ladies and gentlemen, please vote (and no peeking, and no googling):

    (A) Wells's


    (B) Wells'

    The polls (poll's? polls'?) close this evening at 10PM EDT, 7PM PDT.

  11. Essentials of English Grammar (1933) <a href="http://books.google.ca/books?id=cEYwjIo9U3wC&pg=PA102&lpg=PA102&dq=genitive+%22st.+james%27s%22&source=bl&ots=_hSBqNMyRl&sig=av6X2Qq5B9aqCBESeUzH9yrGNx0&hl=en&ei=NrIVSveuL9LEmQfQzvjzDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#PPA102,M1&quot; rel="nofollow">says, "While we have the full genitive in James's wife, St. James's Park, Keats's poems, Chambers's Journal, the ending is left out in other names — chiefly classical — ending in a sibilant."

    IMHO, which is not all that humble actually, in fact it's pretty strident, this kind of shipshod rule-of-thumbing is the thin edge of the wedge for Jacobinism; instead, we should regularise and to make all monosyllabic nouns ending in a sibilant (/s/ or /z/ sound) take a genitive ending, while polysyllabic nouns ending in a sibilant would just take the apostrophe.

    So, (A) Wells's.

  12. Some of the anecdotal stuff in Wells' post reminds me of all the times over the years that pundits have made bold statements about some New Permanent Condition that had supposedly arrived, usually having to do with the Permanent Elimination of something or somebody, such as:

    1. the Separatist/sovereigntist movement in Quebec is dead;

    2. the NDP in BC is dead (after Campbell first got elected);

    3. the Liberal Party of Canada is going to govern us forever and we will never see another Tory government (that after Chretien's threepeat and the initial election of Dithers);

    4. (from south of the border after Bush the Second won a second term) the Democratic Party has been pushed permanently to the margins and the Republicans are the new consensus party in America (cf. the book The Right Nation); or

    4. (the latest from south of the border, now that Obama is President) the Republican Party is dead (except in podunk states full of religious freakazoids & they don't really matter anyway) and a new Democratic Party hegemony has been established to rule American beneficently ad infinitum . . .

    and so on.

  13. Wells'.

    But PW is to be forgiven any misplaced apostrophes because his Rules are so awesome.

    Or I could be wrong. It's been known to happen.

    As per the non-existent fifth rule, I would add that not only is "Bias always easy to spot, except in the mirror." but that therefore anything that does not confirm one's own bias must, therefore, be biased.

  14. Aaaargh, Jack, you were expressly told: No googling!

  15. I was refuting the thing I googled . . . does that squeak by?

  16. The first three, I'll buy, but didn't the 2008 (Canadian) election completely disprove #4? and for that matter (I'm sure a lot of Reform partisans would argue — somewhere I imagine Jarrid rocking back and forth, muttering about Warren Kinsella), didn't 2000 and 2004 also do that? It seems like a time-honoured tradition, assuming that time is the last decade or so, for parties in power to make elections all about why voting them out would lead to the ruin of civilization as we know it…

  17. Indeed. Thanks, Jack!

  18. Indeed. As with most things like this, just saying the options out loud gives the answer.

    "Wells's" sounds good, but "Smithers's" doesn't.

  19. In Jack's case, I'm sure he knew that Option A was preferred without having to look it up. He only provided the link to inform others.

  20. Jack, it will help inform the sentencing decision, but not the determination of guilt.

  21. I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which i have already come.

    – Lord Molson.

  22. Oops.



    The English language, it curses me.

  23. Wow, two 'therefore' s in one sentence. I am on a *roll* today!

  24. I find Rule 1 to be the least interesting of these:

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

    I think this says more about the way that journalists are bound to sensationalize and exaggerate the news. The least exciting possible outcome is always the most probable, but of course is also the least interesting from a journalistic point of view.

    Rule 2 is an Ottawa insiders rule.

    Rule 3 and 4 are perfect on their own.

  25. I'm just being maniacally normative; actually you see both Wells' and Wells's, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

    Actually the only time I ever got into a tangle with my publisher was about the genitive endings to classical names in my second book: they wanted Gaius's and I was adamant about Gaius' until . . . I ceased to be adamant and just went with the flow. Thus was a little pebble washed away from the dike that protects us all from what linguists call leveling, or the gradual merging of paradigms to eliminate perceived oddities; the genitive itself (with its peculiar little monosyllabic variant) being one of the last trees standing on the flood plain.

  26. Don't ever change, Jack… sniff! that was… beautiful…

  27. "It seems like a time-honoured tradition, assuming that time is the last decade or so, for parties in power to make elections all about why voting them out would lead to the ruin of civilization as we know it…"

    Well, that's certainly the argument that we've heard from the BC Liberal Party in the last couple of elections vis a vis the BC NDP. But of course in that instance, the party in power is making a correct factual statement . . .

  28. Whenever this sort of discussion gets too "maniacally normative", I recall Churchill's retort to accusations of split infinitives and trailing prepositions (I approximate from memory):

    "This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put".

  29. Pedants must live, too.

    My absolute all-time favourite piece of pedantry, really in a class by itself: the dying words of the French grammarian Vaugelas, who is said to have remarked as he expired, "Je meurs ou je me meurs; l'un et l'autre se dit, ou se disent" (I die or I am dying; you can say either, or both).

  30. If rule 3 were true, Harper would never win anything,

  31. Well, (heh heh), I gathered my two sons around the laptop tonight. That makes 3 full Wellses.

    We vote Wells'

    Sorry, since it's our name, we win.


    Sorry Jack. Google be damned.

  32. Sorry, Dave. I will hijack a post for a Wellses' vs. Wellses's vote some other time.

  33. Its not possible to think about Wellses's rules and it's weird implications.

    I think there are going to be a few of sics above.

  34. The first time I ever set foot in Stornaway was when the Harpers were its tenants, and Stephen Harper said he and Laureen had had an interesting chat about Rule 3. I got the distinct impression she had recommended it to his attention. He was quite sure these things are entirely path-dependent: it's knowing you're winning that puts you in a good mood, so faking a good mood would fool no-one.

    On the possessive of my name: I'm nostalgic all month because 20 years ago this month I began my internship, and my professional career as a reporter, at The Gazette in Montreal. The style book there was written by Joe Gelman, and it had its ideosyncrasies, but I still know it better from memory than any style book I've worked from (or more often ignored) since. Joe wanted 's after words that end in s, and I was in no position to ask questions. I still do it that way today.

  35. Idiosyncrasies? Joe's book would have the answer if I still had my copy to hand. I bet it would say, "Prefer 'quirks.'"

  36. Wells' in the singular I can admit, MYL, but — Wellses's? Spare the plural, o potent chieftain. Spare the poor wee plural.

  37. Well, actually, since Welsses is plural, no more "S" is to be added after the apostrophe. So we'll abandon that poll, if it makes ye happy. But then, I suppose I should ask how people choose to properly pronounce Wellsses': WELL-ziz? WELL-ziz-iz?


  38. Ah, now there's an interesting question. About which I have no pretensions to knowledge, you'll be thrilled to learn. How do we distinguish, in pronunciation, between the following two sentences?

    My cat got lost, but not the Harpers'. (i.e. the cat of the Harpers did not get lost)

    My cat got lost, but not the Harpers. (i.e. the Harpers did not get lost)

    Assuming one had been cornered into expressing oneself thus, I mean. Would you tend to add a bit of bonus sibilance to the last consonant in Harpers' that you wouldn't add to the last consonant in Harpers? I have a feeling we tend to do that but you better hope you're not at DefCon 1 when you do.

  39. #3. I wonder what the going price of "The Friendly Dictatorship" is on amazon.ca :)

  40. Well, we could always reword the first sentence: My cat got lost, but not the Harpers' cat. It wouldn't be the first time that a sentence needs to be altered to resolve an aural ambiguity.

  41. Is that oral, or aural, CR?

    Man-oh-man Paul is being especially indulgent with the pathetic post hijacking of which I am shamefully guilty.

  42. myl, both would probably apply. One speaks orally and listens aurally.

  43. That, of course, should read "your own rules." Grumble.

  44. At the risk being the skunk at the garden party, I must note that your interpretation of your won rules ran you into some trouble. To wit:

    "Martin will call a snap election as soon as he gets into office. Even if Chrétien hangs on until February, Everyone expects a spring vote at the latest. Go straight to the people and get a fresh mandate.

    It ain't gonna happen."

    Well, June 28 was technically six days into summer, but in fact Martin did drop the writ in the springtime.

    I'm just sayin'. :)

  45. 5. Prime Ministers who lack a law degree will never lead a majority government.

  46. Newton was a phsyicist…..might explain why you were having so much trouble with chemistry.

  47. 5. The next election won't take place until more MP's qualify for pension.

  48. You may have flunked out of second year chemistry, but Rule #1 is a pretty good application of the thermodynamic Energy Minimum Principle to politics: “The equilibrium value of any unconstrained internal parameter is such as to minimize the energy for the given value of total entropy.” It could be revolution in political science, were you to actually introduce some actual science to the field.