Peter Donolo served as director of communications for prime minister Jean Chrétien. He is currently vice-chair of H+K Strategies Canada.
A deeply polarized country – exhausted and riven by a prolonged national unity crisis – turns, in its hour of need, to a folksy and familiar career politician who has been dismissed by elites as a relic and way past his prime.
That describes Canada in the fall of 1993, when Jean Chrétien’s Liberals swept to victory. It is easy to forget just how bitterly divided the country was in the early 1990s: The failed Meech Lake constitutional effort fed not one but several ugly backlashes. In Quebec, separatists were on the march, and for a decade, families in that province couldn’t talk politics without descending into heated and deeply wounding arguments. In Western Canada, the unabashedly populist, grievance-fuelled Reform Party was turning out massive crowds with its thinly veiled anti-Quebec, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and by proposing controversial ideas such as banning turbans in the RCMP. It was no wonder that the federal government’s own Royal Commission on Unity reported "a fury in the land.”
Things got even more furious after Canadians voted down constitutional change in the Charlottetown Referendum of 1992. Maclean’s called it “the most sweeping rebuff of elected politicians in the country’s 125 year history.” Long-time political observer Peter C. Newman concluded that there were “underground rivers of prejudice, racism and loathing for the political process that polluted the debate.”
Eerily, Mr. Newman’s line could just as easily describe the United States as it approaches the 2020 presidential election. Of course, there are important differences with the American situation today. Above all else is the norm-busting presidency of Donald Trump, who takes glee in ripping apart, rather than knitting together, the fabric of his country; for all the failures in leadership Canada has had over a century and a half, we have never had a prime minister like that. On the other hand, the Canada of a quarter-century ago was, in a very real way, on the knife’s edge of splitting apart – a threat that was not resolved until well after the 1995 Quebec referendum. America today faces no such existential crisis, and no matter how ugly the climate is, the ultimate horror show of secession is not on the table in the United States.
But that in no way should diminish the seriousness of the United States' national unity crisis. That’s why, amid all the hoopla over the “new faces” like Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren who have leaped into the presidential-nomination fray, it’s worth noting the one high-profile potential candidate that has yet to throw his hat in the ring – a face as familiar to Americans today as Jean Chretien was to Canadians in 1993: Vice President Joe Biden.
It’s not as odd a comparison as you might think. The pair have been linked before, notably by Maclean’s writer John Geddes in an article on Mr. Biden’s 2016 visit to Ottawa. But two years later, it’s the events across the border themselves that feel so oddly reminiscent to many Canadians. Indeed, as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” – and so as we live amid these couplets, why wouldn’t Americans look to a comforting, experienced hand, just as Canadians did 25 years ago?
In 1993, Mr. Chrétien’s political longevity and experience were reassuring to a nervous and fearful electorate. He had already been a fixture on the political scene for three decades, as far back as most voters of the day could remember. Despite pundits and opponents deriding his thinking as outmoded, Mr. Chrétien’s sense of roots, his intimate, coast-to-coast knowledge of Canada and Canadians and his plain and self-deprecating style resonated with both ordinary and aggrieved Canadian voters, who sensed he was someone who felt and thought like them – with the added benefit of having been around the block a few times.
These are all characteristics Mr. Biden boasts. If Mr. Chrétien is the “Little Guy from Shawinigan,” Mr. Biden is “Amtrak Joe,” who spent his entire Senate career commuting home every night to Wilmington, Del., to be with his children. Like Mr. Chretien, he is as comfortable in diners, taverns or around plain kitchen tables as he is in the halls of power or at glittering galas. Both of them have established decades-long relationships with their electorates. Both of them understudied to charismatic, cerebral leaders – Pierre Trudeau and Barack Obama, respectively – serving as “ministers of everything" to whom the boss would turn when there was a big job to do, or a big mess to clean up.
Both men also spent their political careers swimming upstream, the only route for an outsider from a place such as Shawinigan or Wilmington. Each is a natural fighter, toughened by childhood affliction – in Mr. Chretien’s case, facial paralysis he developed at the age of 12, in Mr. Biden’s a debilitating stutter. Both spent decades being written off by elites. Each gaffe or faux-pas is mocked by the pundits and pearl-clutchers of the establishment, but they’re overlooked or even rationalized by ordinary citizens.
Both evince a pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to government that is rooted in their blue-collar backgrounds and honed by years of practical, hands-on experience. This has often led more ideological critics – usually from the left – to regard both men with suspicion. But over the long term, it has aligned well with the public, particularly because it is informed by an optimistic, inclusive, and broadly progressive set of values.
Perhaps most importantly, they’ve both developed an abiding, almost reverent respect for the institutions of government, and a dedication to using their talents and ease in connecting with voters to strengthen them. That’s an effective antidote to toxic forms of populism and grievance politics.
To be sure, there are differences between Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Biden. The most glaring one is that by 2020, Mr. Biden will be some two decades older than Mr. Chretien was in 1993 – and that’s when they called him “yesterday’s man.” But in politics, sometimes one doesn’t choose the moment as much as the moment chooses them.
Canada was lucky to have Jean Chrétien all those years ago. Slowly, patiently, unglamorously, he turned the country around.
Entering this new year, with the momentum of their midterm victories at their backs, Democrats in the United States will now finally turn in earnest to the long, drawn-out task of selecting their champion to take on Mr. Trump in 2020. The party could risk a bitter internal war between left and centre, between purity and pragmatism – potentially hobbling itself before the real fight begins. Or they could opt for the candidate who symbolizes unity and can reach out to ordinary Americans – not a fresh face but a proven hand.
It’s a Canadian model that Democrats would be smart to emulate.