Overrated in 2011: The List

Peter Donolo, Feist, and Mitt Romney's supposed rivals make Paul Wells's list

1. Peter Donolo. Remember when he was going to save the Liberal Party? He likes old movies! He has the Chrétien mojo! He made a vertical flowchart! Apparently he’s somewhere in Peter C. Newman’s book, saying he ran the best campaign ever! And yet it was all for nought. No, wait, let me check my math. Correction. It was for nought, minus 850,000 votes.

Here, of course, I am nominating Michael Ignatieff’s chief of staff (Fall 2009-May 2011 vintage) as a representative of a certain idea in Canadian politics. Everyone likes Peter Donolo. He is funny, charming, self-effacing. But it is simply not true that high-powered help can make much difference in the fortunes of a political leader. Politics in this country is single combat, and Michael Ignatieff (overrated in 2008, and never since) was the leader no matter who surrounded him. Donolo probably had a clearer idea of that than many observers did. (And yes, here as in other parts of this list, the inclusion of Donolo is largely a mea culpa: I did much of the overrating.)

2. Not-Mitt-Romney. No U.S. political party has cast about so frantically for a nominee besides the obvious front-runner since the Democrats managed not to nominate Jesse Jackson in 1988. Just about every non-incarcerated American over the age of 35 has wound up on the cover of Newsweek this year as a serviceable late-breaking GOP front-runner. The reason is obvious: discomfort with Romney, too bland now, too flip-floppy in the past (“the past” here defined as “his entire career”). It was the Tea Party movement that brought Barack Obama grief in 2010, and Republicans feel it’s Tea Party-ish sentiments that will make the difference in 2012, so they’re not interested in a competent manager. They want pitchforks. Unfortunately, pitchforks are not often associated with stable, thoughtful public figures, so a succession of weirdos — Palin, Bachmann, Perry, Cain — have flamed out. Gingrich is the latest. Good luck with that. I’m pretty sure Romney’s the nominee.

3. Waking the Separatists. We are perpetually told we mustn’t do something because it will awaken separatist sentiment in Quebec. Or scolded because whatever we just did has already awakened separatist sentiment in Quebec. And yet the nap continues. Not funding the Quebec City arena with other Canadians’ tax dollars? Electing a different party outside Quebec from the one Quebecers (suddenly, on a trial basis) preferred? Calling every institution in sight “Royal”? Giving the Habs a unilingual head coach? Zzzzz.

4. Feist.

5. Anger as a Sufficient Response. Badmouthing the Occupy “movement” doesn’t quite hit the right target, I think. Growing inequality and the loathsome notion that a private institution can be “Too Big To Fail” are worth some anger. But anger doesn’t change things unless it is applied to useful ends: a list of specific goals, a strategy for attaining them. Also useless: Facebook groups, rising up. And as we’ve seen in too much Conservative Party policy, anger is also a lousy organizing principle for governance. We will all pay for a long time for crime policy that’s based on being angry about crime.

6. Last words. On Twitter somebody nominated Jack Layton’s farewell letter for this year’s Overrated List, and I thought, wow, that’s gutsy if nothing else. But it was a good letter, so let me broaden the notion a bit.

Layton’s final letter would have touched fewer Canadians if it had been written by a leader who left the NDP with the same dozen or so seats he inherited. Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech would be ignored if he had not pulled Apple back from the brink of destruction and implemented the next big change a half-dozen times.

Last words matter most when they come from people who thought hard, every day, about next moves. So the question for each of us in 2012 should be: What’s your next move?

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