Brian Topp, candidate

Here was Ed Broadbent, taking a flyer on another guy whose first federal campaign might be as the party's leader

Even winners can’t always spot winners. Buried in Tom Flanagan’s book Harper’s Team there’s a brief mention of the candidate Stephen Harper supported, against Preston Manning and Stockwell Day and two sitting Members of Parliament, for the Canadian Alliance leadership in 2000: Tom Long. Harper wasn’t alone. To my occasional annoyance, my top boss at the National Post, Conrad Black, was clearly doing what he could to make himself helpful to Long, a young strategist for Mike Harris and the Ontario Conservatives. Long was a fun guy to have coffee with. Smart, sharp-tongued, a clever analyst of assorted political figures’ weaknesses and opportunities. A lot like Stephen Harper, come to think of it.

He turned out to be a really bad political candidate. So did Belinda Stronach, Mike Harris’s own pick for the Conservative leadership in 2004.  In 2006 a bunch of youngish federal Liberals, including some of the brightest  young members of that party’s federal caucus, decided the party needed generational change — and a leader who had been far, far away from the scene when the Adscam mess was happening. They settled, enthusiastically, on Gerard Kennedy.

It’s hard to spot a winner. Intelligence and wily street smarts are part of politics, but so is simple aesthetics. Does a leader’s voice fill a room? Does he dominate or fade away in a crowd? Does he come off as crushing or petulant when angered? Can he give you goosebumps?

The best way to find out is to test a candidate in smaller forums before tossing him into a big one. Which is why smart parties tend to shy away from people like Tom Long or Belinda Stronach. Or Brian Topp, who sat in the National Press Theatre this morning trying to explain why the first job he wanted in electoral politics is the biggest a New Democrat can ask for: the party leadership.

His answer was that he has stood next to leaders for years — Ed Broadbent, Roy Romanow, Jack Layton — and some of it has rubbed off on him. Broadbent was there too, to argue the same. In 2003 Broadbent endorsed a Toronto city councillor with no experience in federal politics, fellow by the name of Layton, and now here he was taking a flyer on another guy whose first federal campaign might be as the party’s leader.

But Broadbent, and Françoise Boivin, a Quebec MP from near Ottawa who was also on hand, can’t make the arguments that will matter most on Topp’s behalf. He has to do that for himself. How did he do? Moderately well.

He could have made this announcement on any street corner or mountain peak in Canada but chose the National Press Theatre, an institutional setting that made it hard to be exciting. He gave a very long opening statement in French, then repeated it in English, losing some of the free TV exposure he might have hoped for if he’d been brisker. He says “um” and “uh” a lot, and he treated tricky questions with due respect, sidling up to them and nudging them for booby traps before answering them.

But he did answer them. He wants Canada to support Palestinian statehood in a UN vote (good luck with that). He wants the Harper Conservatives to abandon deficit reduction if the economy keeps stagnating. He will run for Parliament, win or lose the leadership (an excellent promise, because if he loses nobody will care whether he keeps it). He refuses to drop the notion of a Liberal-NDP coalition, in a future Parliament, if the numbers make more sense than they did in the last Parliament or the current one.

So he has not prematurely adopted the classic front-runner strategy, which would have him pretending to answer touchy questions while refusing to answer them, while hoping nobody notices. He speaks superb French, better than mine and not far short of Tom Mulcair’s, and hey there’s Mulcair popping up in a story about the NDP leadership, and incidentally everything Topp did today seemed designed to scare Mulcair out of the water before the pool party even begins. There was the laying-on-of-Broadbentian-hands. There was the endorsement from a relatively prominent Quebec caucus member of legal drinking age. There was the long opening in French and the emphasis on Topp’s roots in a Montreal suburb.

The real tests for Topp lie ahead. Does he vanish into the background at his own rallies, or become their focus? Does he backtrack on his forthright answers if they become controversial (a condition now known as Ignatieff’s Syndrome)? If Mulcair runs, watch him emphasize “real experience” over Topp’s years in the shadows.

But just about the only thing I know about Topp is that he was not one of many architects of Layton’s strategy, he was pretty much in a class by himself. When Layton told a Quebec City NDP convention in 2006 that it was now his ambition to try to become Canada’s prime minister, Topp was on hand. It sounded like an empty boast, not just then but for five years after, but it conditioned New Democrats’ reflexes before it had much effect on Canadian voters.’ Topp helped drive the NDP’s coalition attempt in 2008, and the party’s reaction to Ignatieff’s rejection of the scheme after 2009. A good leader is his own strategist. Topp could certainly handle that part of the job requirement.

The rest? We’ll find out soon enough. That he has come this far, this early, is already impressive.

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