Can John Key become the Great Preparer?

Jon argues that 2008 is rife for preparatory leadership, but wonders whether National's small-target political strategy has blunted Jon Key's ability to deliver it.

In last week’s post I talked about our big change periods and the longer periods of consolidation between them. Today I want to explore more closely the cycles of our politics since 1984, because even within overarching periods of consolidation there are more subtle movements taking place within our politics. To show this I’ll borrow from a framework originally conceived by American historian Arthur Schlesinger.

Schlesinger saw two alternating phases in American politics, periods of achievement and periods of consolidation. Presidential Scholar Erwin Hargrove later adapted this framework by adding a third wheel to Schlesinger’s theory, periods of preparation. According to Hargrove there were presidents who prepared the way for reform, presidents who achieved reforms, and presidents who then consolidated the achievements of their predecessor.

A very neat pattern emerged. Kennedy was a president of preparation, achievement (both positive and negative) characterised LBJ’s presidency (think: Great Society, Civil Rights and Vietnam), and Nixon consolidated these earlier efforts. He never unpicked Johnson’s Great Society programmes, and he managed the end-game of Vietnam, albeit in a monstrously ill-tempered fashion. The preparation phase began anew, and awkwardly, with Carter’s failed presidency. Achievements ensued with Reagan, while George H.W. Bush consolidated Reagan’s gains, albeit not well enough to secure a second term.

Clinton was another president of preparation, frustratingly so for Bubba, and luckily for Hargrove he published before George W. Bush’s presidency. Hargrove would surely not have viewed Bush as a president of achievement. The best that can be said is that Bush’s achievements are entirely negative and all rooted in the various misperceptions of threat, hubris, and other motivations that led to Iraq.

Turning to New Zealand, and beginning in 1984, we could characterise the Fourth Labour Government and Bolger’s first term as three consecutive periods of achievement (for both good and ill). Bolger’s second term, however, stands out as a rare oasis of preparatory leadership in our domestic setting. Bolger handled our lead up to major electoral system change with a calm equanimity even as politicians deserted left, right and centre to form new parties.

National’s third term could only be characterised as consolidation, and that’s being charitable about the post-Bolger coalition of malcontents and bovver boys who brought down the dreadful curtain on National’s last term in power.

It gets tricky once we come to Clark’s Labour-led governments from 1999. On one hand they consolidated the post-Rogernomics and Ruthanasia reforms, mediating the worst inequalities that resulted from them, but Clark never overturned any of the significant planks of her post-Revolution policy inheritance.

A further three terms of consolidation also sits comfortably with those analyses which posit that we have been experiencing a concerted period of drift and that the electorate is clamouring for a new phase, if not upheaval, in our politics.

On the other hand Clark might reasonably argue that ’99 began a new cycle of preparation and her governments have then ‘achieved’ during their past two terms in areas of social policy and the economy. But given the lack of any overarching, let alone compelling, purpose having been articulated by the Prime Minister, wavering voters have either taken Labour’s achievements for granted or they have come to view them as a failed response, so we still default back to drift.

This last term has been particularly brutal, with the prolonged fuss over the Auditor-General’s idiosyncratic findings over spending preferences at the last election, the unseemly and ignominious fall of Don Brash in 2006, and the bitter intensity around the Electoral Finance Act late last year. Each points to a wasted, partisan-soaked three years.

I’m drawn to Clark’s time in power as a period of consolidation, although its progressive social policy reforms, Cullen’s prudent management of public debt, and development of a solid national savings platform represent the standout achievements of Labour’s later years in power.

What then of 2008?

Clark is promising more effective consolidation than her opponents, cloaked in the language of experience, competence and trust. Key is also promising consolidation if one judges him on just how much of the significant policy inheritance he has signed up to. His change rhetoric is more in tune with the restlessness out there in the electorate, but his economic vision spelled out last week was neither visionary nor linked to any larger re-casting of our politics or its direction.

I believe Key’s great opportunity is to establish his leadership as a preparatory one. His early rhetoric on becoming leader was drenched in its re-framing potential. But once the political strategy became one of presenting as small a target as possible, while offering pocket-book inducements, he lost his thrust and focus.

As a transitional leader Key could paint a rhetorical canvass for us of what New Zealand in 2020 might look like. If he did, it would constitute authentic preparatory leadership. Our dramatically changing demographics, the opportunities (and challenges) for our economy, and leading a vital democratic discourse, all cloaked in a fresh post-Rogernomics language, would provide him with a compelling narrative about where our country is headed and what we need to do to get there.

Such a reframing would do us all a favour. We could debate our future instead of deciding another election via our tax calculators or by the degree of animus we feel towards the incumbents. Fear of failure, precipitated by nine years in the wilderness, has stilted John Key’s innately ambitious and forward-looking outlook.

National’s conservative political strategy may win it this election, but it will leave it desperately exposed heading into 2011, when it will prove a much bigger target. Now is the time to prepare the path forward. Boldness and conviction, not timidity, would better serve the demands of the zeitgeist. But a question remains: If not from John Key, where will such leadership emerge?