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Lessons for Rob Ford from Clinton, Mitterrand, Harper

Mayor Rob Ford takes part in city council debat over control of the Toronto Transit Commission on March 05, 2012.

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Pity the Mayor of Toronto.

Just 15 months ago, the populist crusader was elected in a spasm of public outrage at City Hall. He had a clear mandate, a broad set of council allies, and a consensus to lower taxes and reduce spending.

Now Rob Ford faces the nightmare of political executives everywhere. He has lost control of his legislature and in doing so lost control of the agenda, the power to make law and – potentially – the power to set the budget.

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As a separately elected mayor, Ford is somewhat akin to a president. He can lose control of the legislature without losing his job. The history of presidents in this situation may provide some guidance on how to move forward.

For some presidents, the loss of control of the legislature is the fatal moment that ends their term in office.

Andrew Johnson succeeded Abraham Lincoln to office and immediately fell into war with the radical Republican Congress, rejecting the laws they passed and attempting to preserve Southern power structures. After attempting to replace his secretary of war in defiance of Congress, Johnson was impeached by the House and only narrowly avoided removal from office by one vote in the Senate. His presidency is now judged a "flat failure."

Today, Johnson fills out the bottom rungs on presidential rankings with the pre-Civil War failures Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. These failed presidents were "stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces."

Even when repudiated by mid-term elections or other political catastrophes, they ignored changing public opinion and clung to their failing policies. Needless to say, nothing was accomplished except their own destruction.

For other presidents, loss of political control of the legislature gave them the enemy they craved.

Harry Truman was a barely known rookie vice-president when Franklin Roosevelt died. His party was badly defeated in the 1946 mid-term elections, after Truman's handling of labour challenges and rationing in the move to a peacetime economy made him seem weak. The Republicans made smashing victories, winning control of both the House and Senate. Gridlock came to Washington.

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In his own re-election, Truman campaigned vigourously against the "do-nothing, good-for-nothing 80th Republican Congress." He won the election as president, but his accomplishment in engineering the Democratic victories in the House and Senate are underestimated. The swings back to the Democrats were remarkable, and they won control of both parts of Congress in 1948 as well.

However, there is a cloud over this victory. Despite winning back partisan control, Truman had a very limited impact on legislation in his second term. His civil rights bills were rebuffed, and he had to resort to Executive Orders to desegregate the military. His health care plan failed to pass. His judicial appointments were conservative cronies.

Ironically, Truman had defeated his partisan opponents in Congress. But never gained political control of that legislature to pass the program on which he campaigned for their defeat.

Both Johnson and Truman were hostile toward their elected legislative majority. One was soundly defeated and the other won political victory, but both saw their legislative agenda fail.

In contrast, other successful presidencies have been built on compromise.

Facing mid-term legislative defeats, both Bill Clinton and François Mitterrand chose to enter into " cohabitation" with their opponents, a French term for when the president is from one party and the legislative majority from another.

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Mitterrand pioneered the approach, inviting Jacques Chirac to sit as prime minister as leader of the right-of-centre parties that won control in the 1986 election. Outwardly, they agreed that Mitterrand retained control of foreign affairs and defence, while Chirac implemented a policy of tax reduction and privatization.

But secretly, Chirac was useful to Mitterrand, who had spent is first few years nationalizing industry until a completely U-turn in 1983 driven by currency devaluations, rising unemployment and economic chaos. Mitterand was able to select issues for conflict with Chirac, assuaging his socialist supporters, while ensuring that critical reforms still passed. Chirac could be blamed for the more unpopular elements of liberalization, while Mitterand enjoyed the economic growth the policy created.

Mitterrand took a moderate stand in the 1988 presidential election, "neither nationalizations nor liberalization" and defeated Chirac in the run-off vote. He was able to achieve his strategic goals, albeit in a different form than he had expected when he took office in 1981. According to the United Nations, France was the only country among the OECD that did not see an increase in income disparity between rich and poor between 1979 and 1989.

Bill Clinton provides the more famous North American example of cohabitation after his mid-term loss of Congress in 1994.

Facing a surging Republican majority in the House and Senate, Clinton at first appeared broken. However, he adopted a policy of choosing his battles. When politics and public opinion were on his side, he faced down his opponents on key issues like the budget deficit and the government shutdown.

When politics was running against him, Clinton would work to moderate Republican initiatives but allow them to pass. " Ending welfare as we know it" was the most famous of these compromises.

In choosing his battles, Clinton was able to secure funding for children's health care, tax relief for small businesses, pass significant campaign finance reform, produce a series of balanced budgets and create years of robust economic growth.

Like Mitterrand, his methods were not always the ones Clinton would have selected, but the results were in line with where he wanted to end up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Rob Ford looks set to follow in the aggressive footsteps of Johnson and Truman.

A natural political counter-puncher, Ford needs an opponent against which to aim his rhetoric. The prose of government has proven to not be his strength, but the poetry of campaigning is. Effectively removed from power but possessing the bully pulpit, Ford can stoke anger, envy and spite as effectively as any modern Canadian politician.

Will it result in his re-election? Will he emulate Johnson or Truman? That depends on the mood of the public, always difficult to gauge more than 30 months before an election.

What is clear is that the default Ford position will – like both Johnson and Truman – result in the loss of his reform agenda, certainly until the next election and likely afterwards as well. Given the difficulty in defeating incumbents, barring a spate of retirements or the emergence of a party system, his opponents do not appear to be going anywhere.

It doesn't need to be like this. Ford was elected with a deliberately vague mandate to "stop the gravy train" and he has some successes on that front. Focusing on introducing competition, reforming City Hall's entitlement culture and securing more appropriate wage settlements will continue this agenda. With modest compromises, he can assemble a working coalition on most of his core issues and implement his agenda.

By being confrontational on every issue and needlessly married to doomed policies, Ford risks the Johnson approach of failing to achieve his ends by being too unyielding on his chosen means. If Mr. Ford was sincere about achieving fundamental reforms at City Hall, now is the time to emulate Clinton and Mitterrand instead.

It isn't only Socialists and Democrats who engage in cohabitation, after all.

Stephen Harper successfully managed two successive minority governments, while reducing taxes, avoiding major climate change legislation, moving child care funding away from national daycare, passing the Federal Accountability Act, recognizing Quebec as a "nation within Canada", maintaining forces in Afghanistan, supporting Israel, building up the military readiness, and generally shifting the country away from its liberal heritage.

He did this by picking his battles, working with the opposition when necessary but ruthlessly exploiting opportunities when they were presented.

Ford should emulate political leaders who found success in triangulating against a hostile legislature, rather than those to railed against their opponents and accomplished little legislative reform.

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