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Harper went cowboy; Pearson goaded Dief. (Mikael Kjellstrom)
Harper went cowboy; Pearson goaded Dief. (Mikael Kjellstrom)

Lawrence Martin

Take heart, leaders - the first year's always a killer Add to ...

As his support collapses, Michael Ignatieff could surely use a bit of consolation. He need only check the history books, where he will see that his present-day circumstance is little different than that of about 90 per cent of his Liberal predecessors during the past half-century. Like him, they crashed, stumbled or burned in their rookie year as party leader.

It's a remarkable number - and it's almost as high on the Conservative side. Our political leaders, for whatever reason, simply haven't been able to perform in Act One. You could write a book called First-Year Follies. It would fill 500 pages.

The peculiarity is a lesson that should not be lost on Stephen Harper. He should know that the opponent's rookie year is the best time to move in for the kill. If you don't, you give him a chance to recover.

Liberal leaders who floundered in Year One are Lester Pearson, John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Mr. Ignatieff. That's six of the past seven. Only Pierre Trudeau had a good first year.

For the Conservatives, the rogues gallery includes Kim Campbell and Stockwell Day, whose first years were the political equivalent of residency at Guantanamo. It also has Joe Who (Clark) and George Drew. To a lesser degree, it includes Robert Stanfield and Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister wobbled through the first year both as Canadian Alliance leader and as Conservative leader. His low points included the media's running a photograph of him in a Calgary Stampede get-up that made him look like a dork.

For some of the leaders, it has been a lack of experience that has led them to come across as stumblebums. Others inherited divided parties and were stabbed in the back. Some came in with political advisers who knew how to get them the job, but, once there, didn't know how to do the job.

Others suffered from overly high expectations. Still others had no clear policy direction and flopped around like fish on a dock.

In some cases, the opening acts more or less finished off the leaders. Others were able to recover, though slowly. Few seemed to learn from the rookie mistakes of those before them. History - bad history - kept repeating itself.

Mr. Ignatieff's troubles are deep, but, so far at least, they are no match for some of the more storied Liberals who stunk the joint out before him.

In 1958, Lester Pearson had just been crowned leader when he cluelessly goaded John Diefenbaker into an election. The Chief routed him, winning 208 seats.

In 1984, when John Turner was elected boss, the Grits had high hopes. But he had been away from politics a long time and needlessly called an election right away. He then turned the hustings into a rust belt. His Liberals won only 40 seats, a record low.

Paul Martin was so far ahead in the polls when he took over the Liberals that he could touch the stars. Crippled by an inherited scandal, he limped to a minority. Then there was poor Stéphane Dion. He had barely started when personal attack ads and his own communications problems reduced him to a punching bag.

Even Jean Chrétien, with all his political experience, was hit with new-leader syndrome. As opposition leader in 1990, he claimed, despite having spent several years as a barrister, that he was "not a lawyer." He was mocked endlessly for saying that Canadian troops should stay in the Persian Gulf - so long as there was no outbreak of war. He was vague on policy, he dropped 11 points in the polls and there were calls from his caucus for him to step down even before he contested an election. Of course, he then went on to win three majorities.

Helping Mr. Chrétien along the way were the shell-shocked rookie seasons of Kim Campbell and Stockwell Day.

Mr. Harper pulled the Conservatives together, but he came very close to losing the leader's job. In September of 2005, he was doing so poorly that there was talk in the party of dumping him. By January, 2006, he was Prime Minister.

Mr. Ignatieff might take heart from the turnarounds of Mr. Harper and others. It's tough, but with a little luck and a little help from your friends, it's possible to get beyond the first-year follies.

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