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The secret ingredient—and potentially fatal flaw—of political leadership

Tom Mulcair’s efforts to cling to his job isn’t desperate, writes Evan Solomon. It’s a reminder that good leaders are ones who take risks with conviction
NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks to reporters about the federal budget on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, March 22, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)
NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks to reporters about the federal budget on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, March 22, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

On the surface, it looks quixotic and desperate. Why is Tom Mulcair trying to hang onto power? “That’s exactly what he has to explain to us,” an NDP member told me last weekend at the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit in Ottawa. The case against Mulcair is so easy to make right now. His party is less popular than mosquito season in Timmins, Ont.—polling just over 11 per cent in the last Ekos test. Under his leadership, the NDP lost more than half their seats in the last election, tumbled back to third place and watched the mantle of “progressive” slide to the Liberals. He blew it. Even powerful labour leaders like Hassan Yussuff of the Canadian Labour Congress are calling for his head. But he’s fighting on. It is likely he will never be the prime minister. The campaign may even damage the party, but it reveals not only Mulcair’s best quality, but the best quality any leader can have: conviction.

It’s easy to confuse conviction with ambition, but likely only two other people truly understand the difference: Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. Like Mulcair, both took highly risky paths to power and it paid off. Journalists don’t get it. We look at the polls. Play the odds. Our basic currency is the present and we quote the cliché that politics is the art of the possible. Good leaders, however, see politics as the art of the impossible. That’s why they are so rare—they take massive risks when no one else sees the end-game strategy. Their currency is conviction. They set out on circuitous, unpredictable routes where victory looks impossible. Until it isn’t.

If Mulcair was merely driven by ambition and ego, why would he leave the cozy confines of the Quebec Liberal cabinet to run as a federal candidate for the NDP? In Outremont! At the time it was a political suicide mission. The riding had been Liberal in every election but one since 1935. There were no NDP MPs in Quebec. But he won. At best it was supposed to be a symbolic victory for the party. Did he—did anyone—actually imagine that Quebec would be swept by the famous Orange Wave? Then, with the tragic death of Jack Layton, Mulcair was suddenly the leader, on the doorstep of the PM’s office. Machiavelli couldn’t plot a journey like that, let alone George Lucas.

Related: John Geddes on Mulcair’s leadership review and the NDP convention 

Stephen Harper’s journey was just as unlikely. Forget, for a moment, the Harper who ran the paranoid, suffocating last campaign, who had long ago tossed his early political ideals under a battalion of buses always ready to run over whatever stood in the way of his power. It wasn’t always like that. No one who wants to become a Conservative prime minister joins the PCs, then quits the party, jumps to the nascent Reform party, becomes an MP, quits that party, watches a new party form, criticizes the new leader, takes over, unites all factions together under as new banner and then—catch your breath—takes down a Liberal dynasty. It’s like jumping on a pogo stick and hoping to land on the moon. But he did. Whatever Canadians feel about Stephen Harper after almost 10 years in power—and clearly his time was up—what got him there was fearless conviction. The risks of losing were just too high to be driven by anything else.

Justin Trudeau’s route has also been about risk. All anyone ever expected him to do was lose, to be the faded Xerox copy of his father. But, instead of running in a safe Liberal seat, Trudeau ran in the working-class, Bloc-controlled riding of Papineau. The Bloc threw everything they had at him, knowing that putting Trudeau’s head on a stake would be a powerful trophy. He destroyed them. Then he patiently bided his time in Parliament, raising money for other MPs and not chafing at junior portfolios. His patience always trumped his ambition. Then the boxing match. If he had lost against Patrick Brazeau, Trudeau would have symbolically confirmed he was a featherweight posing as a heavyweight. He won, of course. But the risk didn’t stop there. His decision to run a campaign based on deficit spending, legalizing pot and changing the electoral system were high-risk promises after a decade of dour incrementalism. Whatever you think of Justin Trudeau, his path has not been risk-averse.

In an age of deep cynicism, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the leaders we have all took bold, personally challenging roads to get to the top. They are familiar with the chorus of doubters, but they don’t listen. They keep moving. It doesn’t mean their stories all end well. Or that we agree with what they do. But at least we can appreciate why they keep getting back up and entering the ring.

Tom Mulcair is badly bloodied. How he can convince progressives to trust him again is a mystery to me. Progressives who look at the deficit spending of Justin Trudeau must think there are close to 30 billion reasons not to believe that Tom Mulcair, with his balanced budget promise, is actually a better option. Meanwhile, to his far left, Mulcair sees an insurgency in the form of Avi Lewis and his superstar partner Naomi Klein, the two people behind the controversial Leap Manifesto, which asks progressives to take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into a post-carbon world. Will Mulcair go there to reach the 70-per-cent delegate threshold he needs to survive, and will that take his party even deeper into back benches, where only the political conscience lives? Maybe.

But in politics, what looks like a foolish tilting at windmills today can end up in Langevin Block tomorrow. John Ashbery once wrote, “The longest way is the most efficient way.” It was from a poem called A Wave. This long fight to keep power might just be the second political wave Tom Mulcair is hoping to ride.