There is one truism in modern politics that its practitioners always seem to forget: politicians have never been, and will never be, “hip.”
It’s the nature of the beast. To have a career in politics implies an ability to display “leadership,” whether you’re an actual leader or a backbencher, as well as an understanding that one will play within the existing rules of order. “Hip” may imply internal integrity (“I follow my own code”), but in the event of a clash between one’s code and society, responsible politicians are expected to let the latter prevail, while “hip” ones risk their own external position by heeding the former.
It’s a distinction that seems to be lost on the Green Party MP, Elizabeth May.
The problem with Ms. May is that she absolutely, positively cannot do “hip.” This isn’t necessarily a handicap; neither Stephen Harper nor Hilary Clinton can do “hip” either, because “hip” is not a natural bent in either of their personalities. The trouble begins when an “unhip” politician tries to do a “hip” thing, and then either two things will happen: either they misunderstand “hip” and things fall flat, or they go over the top and risk destroying their internal credibility.
(Before you start: Stephen Harper’s piano playing isn’t “hip.” It’s something he only displays in public because he’s nagged to do so; he’s competent at it, but he’d never cut an album, not even for charity, and everyone knows that.)
The Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner is one occasion when both Ottawa media and national politicians get together to have fun and blow off steam. (No, it’s neither “dining with the enemy” nor the “old network.”) This is an event when doing “over the top” can be forgiven by the mostly insider audience — provided it’s done well. Imagine the late Herb Gray, a button-down Liberal, singing the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” dressed in vinyl trousers and studs and you’ll get an idea of what sort of entertainment can be considered successful.
Ms. May is an activist, and an anti-Tory partisan. This pretty much requires her to live and breath politics, in public, pretty much all the time, and her instinct is to do that whenever she has a public opportunity. The problem is she wanted to do something that would entertain with shock value, and the performance she put on unfortunately wasn’t far enough from her perceived public persona to be actually entertaining.
A lot of those who don’t like Ms. May are calling on her to resign, but personally I don’t think that’s worth the effort. First, as things stand now Ms. May is a leader of a fringe party and her performance has done nothing to persuade anyone that Green is worth voting for, but since that’s been the party’s standing over the past four years that performance isn’t exactly a threatening deterrent. Secondly, with an election coming up in less than six months, if she were to resign now the inclination would be to let her vacated seat be vacant until October, and even then there’s no guarantee she won’t run again.
And if she does run? Well, that video is out there, and no amount of lobbying YouTube or Google will guarantee its erasure from the public consciousness. Whether she likes it or not, Ms. May is likely going to have to explain what she did, over and over again, and explaining and justifying are never going to be winning strategies in an election campaign.