Last Friday was something of a historic day for Toronto, because it will be remembered as the very last time John Tory’s name will be advanced for political office, here or elsewhere. Ever the switch-hitting batter who couldn’t decide which direction to aim, he chalked up strike three and exits stage left, a spectre of what might have been.
He now joins a very small and very elite club that consists mainly of washed-up Liberal wunderkinds — John Turner and Paul Martin, of course, and maybe also John Manley and Frank McKenna. He won’t be out of place. The truth is that Tory is in almost every important sense an identical replica of a Bay Street Liberal.
In fact, Tory reminds me a great deal of Martin, another son of privilege and power, a man told often that public life not only awaited him, but needed his brand of gravitas. Both made Bay Street their political base. Both were and are men of ideas and prodigious interests — indeed, far too many for the narrow confines of elected office.
Martin’s brief tenure as prime minister can be read as a kind of trailer for a Tory mayoralty. These guys cultivated too many policy preoccupations, and lacked the ability to decide among them, which is the essence of political leadership. To govern is to choose, as the old saying goes. In their own ways, neither could.
With Tory — I’m speculating, of course — because his indecision has been much more political than legislative. Perhaps he’d have run council with an iron fist in a sheepskin glove, driving hard at a few clearly articulated goals. The evidence suggests otherwise. The infuriating humming and hawing that became a leitmotif of his post-2003 career would likely have persisted in office, with council left to do its thing in the kind of leadership vacuum that has occasionally polluted Mayor David Miller’s tenure, as well as Barack Obama’s.
I’m not saying I don’t value leaders who listen to debate and rely on other perspectives to inform their own conclusions. But they also need to project focus and strength (think Jean Chretien), without which there is only drift and bickering.
The other interesting parallel is that both Martin and Tory found themselves cast in unlikely roles — wealthy, right-of-centre business types shoehorned awkwardly into progressive political agendas justified by some sense of noblese oblige. That was certainly Martin’s fate during a minority government supported (up to a point) by Jack Layton and his merry band of urban socialists.
In Tory’s case, his narrative has shifted since 2003, when he was the standard bearer for the suburban right. Had he jumped in this time, he would have become, somewhat ironically, the de facto downtown centrist, looking to hoover up most of George Smitherman’s base of well educated, middle-class homeowners who, I’m guessing, mainly live in the old City of Toronto (many of whom voted for Miller).
But I doubt he’d have had much purchase with the aggrieved suburban voters who are being duped into believing that cutting councillor expense budgets magically solves everything. Tory, after all, is a cerebral moderate who is incapable of doing populist convincingly; Rob Ford, needless to say, does it well and to excess.
So maybe, in the end, John Tory looked in the mirror and realized he’d have to re-invent himself as the old City of Toronto’s big tent candidate. In the story-line of the 2010 campaign, he therefore becomes an establishment politician strangely implicated in the anti-Miller/anti-downtown/anti-Dalton McGuinty backlash that puts red meat on Rob Ford’s dinner table every single night.
Stranded betwixt and between, he ultimately decided against deciding.