The great problem of Clark's missed opportunity to lead

Charlie Smith identifies one of Christy Clark's big problems in a Georgia Straight piece today.

"With most politicians," Smith writes, "you can figure out what they really believe in. There are certain issues that you know they are passionate about, even if you don't agree with them."

Smith cites examples. Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants a big military and more people in jails. Gordon Campbell - leaving aside his many fleeting enthusiasms- believed that taxpayer support for the corporate sector would strengthen the province.

But after watching Clark as premier for a year - and listening to her as talk-show host for several - Smith writes that he's still not clear what she really cares about, or why she wants to be premier. She's talked about families and jobs, but what politician is against families and jobs?

Leaders, in any context, need to be able to set out a vision. People in the organization - or party - won't all agree, but they'll know the goals and be able to articulate them. And, on some level, help to achieve them. Leaders can hang on without them, of course. They have the power to enforce discipline. But entropy sets in.

And while political parties have an overriding goal - getting elected - that doesn't rally the uncommitted voters essential to success.

Clark's fallback position seems to be to campaign on the argument that people who don't actually like the Liberals or their current direction must vote for them anyway to keep the NDP out of power.

The argument is sound. Votes for the Conservatives, in most ridings, increase the chances of an NDP victory. (Thought the latest poll showing the Liberals and Conservatives tied undermines Clark's claim to automatic support.)

But it smacks of arrogance and is incredibly uninspiring. "Vote for us - even if you think we're doing a lousy job. You have no choice." (I recall Glen Clark making similar arguments as the NDP sank in the polls in the late 1990s. When the election was closer, he said, people would realize that even if they didn't like the New Democrats, the Liberals would be worse. They didn't.)

Some former Liberals will ignore Clark's pitch and vote Conservative or New Democrat. Others will just stay home.

The problem is greater for Clark because she failed to seize the narrow window - a matter of months - that new leaders in any organization have to set the new direction and articulate it. If they miss the opportunity, the status quo, or a vacuum, becomes the norm, and change is much harder. Any new direction now is likely to be seen by many voters as empty, pre-election posturing.

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