Friday, November 18, 2011

Mulcair making political lemonade

It looks like NDP leadership hopeful Thomas Mulcair is heeding the old adage, “If life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.”

Or rather since this is the NDP we are talking about, maybe it’s an orange and orange juice.


My point is Mulcair is making the best he can out of a bad strategic situation.

And that bad strategic situation can be simply stated: his chief opponent in the NDP leadership race, Brian Topp, has cornered the market when it comes to big name endorsements.

Topp has received endorsements from such stars as former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan Premier Ed Ronanow and most recently from the United Steelworkers union.

Getting that kind of establishment party support is impressive. In fact, one pollster has described Topp as an “elite juggernaut.” And no mistake, such endorsements do matter. It means credibility for the candidate, it means money, it means lots of positive media coverage.

Mulcair, a relative newcomer to the NDP (he was formerly a provincial Liberal in Quebec) can’t match Topp in the endorsement game.

So he isn’t trying. Rather Mulcair has decided to play a little political ju-jitsu; he is using Topp’s strength against him.


Well, essentially Mulcair has cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate. At his leadership launch, for instance, he talked about how he would do “things differently” and how the party needed to expand beyond its “traditional base.”

One of his supporters, Dominic Cardy, the leader of New Brunswick’s provincial NDP, was even blunter. “The election,” he said, “is about the future of our country, not the past of our party.”

In other words, Topp is getting support from the party’s establishment, because he represents old ideas and the “Old Guard.”

Mulcair, on the other hand, represents the grassroots and new ways of doing things.

It’s an anti-elistist argument that might resonate in an anti-elistist party like the NDP.

Of course, there is nothing original about this tactic. Running against the establishment is a time-honoured practice that often pays political dividends.

This is true especially of late.

I saw this first-hand last year while working on a Republican primary race in the US. Anti-incumbent feeling was running strong at the time in America, meaning the worst insult you could hurl at an opponent was that he or she was an “Establishment-backed candidate” or that his or her campaign was funded by special interest groups or lobbyists.

Indeed, it was anger at the Republican Party’s establishment which helped fueled the Tea Party movement and which led to the defeat of several GOP “establishment” favorites in the 2010 primaries.

Nor were the Democrats immune. Some Congressional Democratic incumbents sought to win points with voters by pointing out how they had opposed their own party’s establishment.

The same dynamic was at play here in Canada too.

One of the reasons, for instance, Toronto mayoralty candidate Rob Ford won his race so handily was because he overtly took on the city’s ruling establishment.

And Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used anti-establishment feeling to his advantage as well. He and his Conservatives have often railed against cultural, intellectual and media “elites” to rally their populist supporters.

Mind you, none of this means going the anti-establishment route will work for Mulcair in the NDP leadership race.

However, in terms of strategy Mulcair doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Playing the anti-establishment card is not only his best option; it’s really his only option.

I just hope he likes the taste of lemonade.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

1 comment:

Greg Markowitz said...

All the endorsements in the world would never have changed the fact that Stephane Dion was a disaster for his party.
A weenie is a weenie. They can be bright, they can be honourable (though I'm not sure in this case), but none of that changes their electability. Speaking of which, Brian Topp has never been elected to public office.
I think that Broadbent is going to end up with egg on his face for backing someone with no Parliamentary experience. The elder statesman of the Party who uses his influence to back the first horse out of the gate, without even knowing who else might present themselves comes across as a sandbag job and very disingenuous. Not to mention that Jack created the Broadbent Institute. What happens to the lustre of Jack's creation if Broadbent picked the wrong horse. Ed should have shown class like Olivia did.
Roy Romanow's endorsement is akin to Nikky Ashton being supported by her Dad.
I suppose the debates will separate the serious candidates from the rest. We'll see!