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This is referenced briefly in the print edition, but here’s a more expansive take.

One could argue that the defining characteristic of Liberal leaders over the last half century is recovery. Pearson, Trudeau and Chretien struggled and recovered. Turner, Martin and Dion struggled and did not. Pearson wins the leadership in 1958 and promptly leads the party to what was then its worst ever defeat. Trudeau nearly loses to Bob Stanfield in 1972 and loses outright to Joe Clark in 1979, and comes back both times to revive his fortunes and win majority governments. And then there’s Chretien.

He’s been referenced twice here as a model for Ignatieff, so consider Chretien’s first year as leader of the Liberal party, as related in the second volume of Lawrence Martin’s biography. Chretien wins the leadership in June 1990. He puts off running in a by-election and fails to articulate clear policy. He hand picks Denis Coderre for a by-election in a traditional Liberal stronghold in Montreal and Coderre is trounced by the Bloc. He bungles his position on the first Iraq war, struggles with Meech Lake and feuds with John Turner. By January 1991, he’s 10 points back of the NDP. His handlers try to remake him, right down to his pronunciation of the word “the.” He doubts himself. Questions are asked about the staff around him. In February 1991, doctors discover a growth on his lung. The growth is benign, but the surgery to remove it involves breaking some ribs and a 12-inch incision. He comes back too soon and goes wobbly during a speech in Winnipeg. Fears emerge of a split between Chretien and Martin loyalists, the start of a decade of infighting. Chretien steps into controversy on Quebec and the constitution. The Star runs a story under the headline, “Liberal Strategists Hope Chretien Will Quit.” He tries to deliver a major foreign policy speech, but continues to mangle the English language. He dispatches six MPs to sound out the opinions of Liberal supporters across the country. The advice: “Hire better staff. Get a think-tank going to develop policy. Be himself, the old Jean Chretien.”

Shortly thereafter he hires Jean Pelletier to organize his office and two years later he’s the 20th Prime Minister of Canada.


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  1. That is a fascinating story that I'm too young to remember, and is probably the best thing I've read in Macleans all week.

  2. You left out the most important factor in why Chretien became PM, Wherry. The economy tanked just when the GST and FTA kicked in and Kim Campbell imploded. Chretien didn't win the 1993 election, The Tories lost it.

  3. Two Yen is right had it not been for Kim falling over Chretien would still be wishin he was Trufeaus attack dog again …

  4. I don't think that's relevant. Sure those events would've helped him. But this story is about recovery, about going from 10 points below the NDP to Prime Minister. That's huge. So I disagree, Chretien did win.

  5. I agree with TWO YEN, the tories lost, Kim Campbell, still in my book, the biggest mistake ever made by the Tories, talk about an unqualifed person to be PM, they made a big mistake choosing her over Chearest and paid for it, BIG TIME!

    I am a Liberal and I love Chretien but he did got a lucky break!!

  6. In order to recover, someone else has to fall. We have a finite number of voters.

  7. Don't forget that Reform basically took all of the Tory votes in the West.

  8. "Shortly thereafter he hires Jean Pelletier to organize his office and two years later he's the 20th Prime Minister of Canada." A lot happened in those two years…

    Unlike Ignatieff, Chretien had 3 decades of experience in federal politics to tap into.

  9. Chretien also had almost three decades of political experience under his belt by 1990. By that measure, Rae would be the better choice, and Ignatieff must plod on with the skills of an apprentice (if that).

    Chretien also had a unique ability, or perhaps it was simply good fortune, to render missteps and shortcomings as somehow endearing to voters. There's an alchemy to that sort of thing, and no amount of wishing can summon it at will.

    I don't think these sorts of comparisons are all that predictive, and tend to show the commonality of the successful only after the fact. That's not to say that Ignatieff might not prevail. But there's no precedent that speaks to his particular challenges. And I think it's something of a disservice to Chretien to push the comparisons too far.

  10. You speak as though politics is a 1 dimensional science. He had to improve his own image and the liberal brand before anything. There's no way he would have become Prime-Minister had he not recovered from his first year or so leading the party. Especially not if he was 10 points below the NDP…

  11. Nah, I wouldn't lay this all on Kim Campbell. There was definitely a lot of loss of confidence in the Tory government in the population as a whole. There was a reason that Brian Mulroney resigned in the first place, and it wasn't because Brian hated power. Kim Campbell's appointment as party leader and Prime Minister was a last ditch effort to revitalize Tory fortunes.

    There was deep disgust among fiscal conservatives about the deficit and debt load, which basically led to a splintering of the party faithful. Reform took a lot of their brain trust, a lot of their political machinery, and their best donors.

    The Liberals as well made a great deal of gains by associating themselves with the center rather than the socially liberal nationalistic multiculturalism of Trudeau, making it easier for Tories in Ontario and the Maritimes to make the jump. This basically left the Tories with no platform to run on that differentiated them from the Liberals.

  12. The Progressive Conservatives were going to lose mightily no matter who led them in that election. Campbell was the sacrificial lamb, not the biggest mistake, that the PC's put out there.

  13. Perhaps part of Ignatieff's problem is his lack of apprenticeship in Canadian politics. But that could mean that he has fewer favours to repay.

  14. Great point. The parallel between Chretien's first year and Ignatieff's temporary fall from grace crumbles as soon as one examines the stark differences between the two men. In many ways, they couldn't be more dissimilar:

    Chretien: simple but shrewd, linguistically challenged, seasoned political veteran, speaks "straight from the heart", tough fighter.

    Ignatieff: articulate intellectual, political novice, hasn't spent much time here, appointed to his current position, clearly wearing a "politician" mask, absentee boss.

    Chretien lacked Ignatieff's brainpower and erudition, but Ignatieff lacks Chretien's experience, intuition, projected sincerity, and teflon coating.

  15. Thanks!

    I think your lines sum the two up accurately and fairly. Chretien is like the Keith Richards of politics (Richards is a far more skilled musician than many realize), whereas Iggy is a bit closer to a Canadian Idol contestant. What I dislike about the Idol shows is the myth they perpetuate: innate talent alone can propel one to success. When I think about some of Iggy's more telling comments (politics as theatre type stuff), he reminds me of someone who hasn't accounted for the experience many leaders bring to the table.

  16. I agree too, Chretien, in my opinion turned out to be an exceptional PM !!

    And you are right about the talent part, most intellectuals are good to be teachers, write books, great for TV debates (nothing wrong that, by the way!) But, they can't run for office is not that they aren't good, it takes a skill to be able to lead and Ignatieff doesn't have it at all, he needs to be lead!

  17. You are right!!!

  18. Add together the Tory and Reform support in 1993 and/or 1997. Chretien was successful largely because the right imploded (really the Bloc is also an offshoot of the old PC Party). Chretien won by being the only person leading a national party. I think he was an excellent Prime Minister, but his reputation as a great and savvy pol is overrated. Likewise Pearson. Pearson not only lost in 1958, he also failed to unseat Dief in 1962, and even then could only win a minority government against a largely discredited PC leader.

    The Liberals are not the superior campaigners the history-books make them out to be. Rather, the Tories have traditionally been awful and self-defeating. Since 1984, however, much of the traditionally Tory backstabbing has been picked up by the Liberals.

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