Life after death: the art of political resurrection

“Can a soufflé rise twice?” was the question asked by former prime minister Paul Keating following his adversary, Andrew Peacock’s return to the Liberal leadership.

In the end, Peacock’s leadership fell flat but it hasn’t deterred other politicians from attempting comebacks. John Howard, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd all tried political resurrection – while in the United States, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney are considering comebacks of their own.

So what makes for a successful revival and how can politicians who failed the first time around pull off the sequel?

John Howard remains the template for successful political resurrection. In 1983 he ran for the Liberal leadership and lost. Two years later he won the prize, only to see it slip away in the face of diabolical opinion polls. After a series of false starts he was given another go in 1995. Twelve months later the politician who had staged more comebacks than John Farnham was finally in the Lodge.

The secret to Howard’s success lies in more than sheer determination. Not only was he relentless, he also had a clear political identity, one that was ultimately suited to the times. Indeed, the very factors that made him unelectable in the 1980s, made him the model candidate in 1996.

During his first stint in the Liberal leadership, Howard’s conservative social views and dour media persona meant he was no match for the progressive and charismatic Bob Hawke. But Howard 2.0 was launched in a very different political environment. Perfectly positioned to capitalise on a growing voter backlash against social and economic change, the “down to earth”, dull Howard was cast as the perfect antidote to the arrogant and aloof Keating.

While Howard was the man of the moment, his adversary Kim Beazley’s moment never came. During his first stint in the Labor leadership, Beazley adopted a risk averse, small target strategy. As a result, the community struggled to gain a clear sense of his agenda.

When Beazley blinked as the Tampa crisis unfolded Howard cast him as vacillating and weak. It was a charge that crystalised the community’s existing doubts about his “ticker” and underscored criticism from opponents on the left and the right. When Beazley launched his comeback five years later, he was again found lacking. As voters turned against Howard and his toxic Work Choices agenda there was a mood for a bolder style of leadership. Enter Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Rudd’s leadership is perhaps one of the most dramatic in our history. Elected on a wave of optimism in 2007, just a few years later his prime ministership collapsed under a tsunami of policy and personality dysfunction. Action on climate change was fundamental to the Rudd persona, so when he shelved his Emissions Trading Scheme voters began to doubt his authenticity. Media reports of a man prone to tantrums and outburst began to surface. First the polls turned against Rudd and then his colleagues followed suit.

Three years later he returned to the Lodge. Much like the original, Rudd 2.0 failed to deliver. The reasons for this lie in his undoing in 2010. He started his second prime ministership in the same way he ended his first: with a backflip on climate change – seeking to dump Gillard’s carbon price. The electorate again began to question his policy conviction.

Indeed, the Rudd revival seemed to be more about recreating the magic of his first tilt at the prime ministership. The spectre of a man his adversaries derided as a narcissist posing for endless selfies, only sought to reinforce the perception that Rudd’s leadership was more about the messenger than the message. The magic was well and truly gone and soon, so was Rudd.

In the United States, much like Howard before her, Hillary Clinton may well find that the times suit her. Heading into 2008, Clinton was considered the frontrunner in the Democratic primaries, but this insider status was ultimately a vice. Cast as a symbol of the political establishment, Clinton proved unable to capitalise on a growing mood for change and was ultimately overwhelmed by the Obama juggernaut. Almost eight years on, there is a sense that Obama has failed to deliver on the promised break from the past.

A safe pair of hands, with years of experience in public life, Clinton’s political attributes may well suit this environment.

Republican Mitt Romney on the other hand, appears to be grappling with the same crisis of identity that crippled Beazley and Rudd. In order to neutralise claims that he was too moderate, Romney shifted to the right in the lead-up to the 2012 US presidential election. As a result, he alienated a broad cross-section of the community. If anything, given demographic change in the United States, he will likely confront an electorate more diverse and socially progressive than the one he faced in 2012. Scar tissue from that campaign is unlikely to make him an attractive proposition for this growing constituency.

Keating was right about that soufflé. Something light and without substance can really only ever rise once. But ideas enjoy a much longer shelf life.

A politician with a clear message and agenda can rise from the ashes of defeat, but only if their resurrection reignites a vision shared by the electorate. Indeed, as noted by Victor Hugo: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea who’s time has come”.

We will soon discover whether Clinton and Romney have that recipe for success.

This article was first published on ABC Online Opinion – The Drum on 19 January 2015. 

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