Brian Cowen, the second 100 days
Sometime in late April or early May there will be flurries of analysis pieces all headlined ‘Obama: The First 100 Days’.
There’s no doubt about it. It is an enticing headline and implies the first weathervane of how the leader is coping with the new job; and the first signs of the imprint they may evenutally make.
As for what it means, its signficance? Well, let us look.
As I see it, there are two points to make about it.
1. It has more potent when there’s been a radical shift of power – when Tory replaces Labour; when Democrat replaces Republican; when Fianna Fail replaces Fine Gael. When one leader belonging to a party or tradition is replaced by a colleage it has less meaning.
2. Circumstances change. Somebody who breezes through the first 100 days and sets the right tone may be a goner by day 120. That tiem period is an indication. Nothing more.
So far, so obvious. And for that reason, I believe that Cowen’s first 100 days told us very little about his mettle. But where we have really learned about him has been during his second 100 days.
I remember talking to one of Brian Cowen’s closest confidantes a couple of weeks before Bertie Ahern stood down and he expressed the fervent hope that Ahern would survive for another year.
“It’s going to be a rough ride. It would be far better for Brian to come in when things are really bad and expectatons are low.”
Cowen came into the job at the worst possible time. He had a short time to turn around a referendum that had already been lost. And as he made his way onto the bridge of the ship of state, on the horizon, way out to sea, he could see another tidal wave moving ominously to shore.
It wasn’t helped by all the hype. The media have generally liked Cowen because he has been capable of reaching dizzying heights, could occasionally provide good copy, and was seen as a political heavyweight, intellectually and spiritually close to the core of Fianna Fail.
It was clear, to me at least, that he wanted to set out some kind of vision, to be a thoughtful Taoiseach in the vein of Sean Lemass. Not to be showy. But to be a leader.
He never got a chance. It’s been Hurricane Force stuff all the way, with the Government desperately trying to keep it all afloat with all hands on deck furiously trying to bail it out.
And sorry for extending the seafaring metaphor. But Cap’n Cowen is still vainly struggling to find his sea legs, despite being 200 days in power.
And during the second 100 days, we have seen the flaws, where he has been found wanting, and badly wanting.
There’s been a lot of stuff written (and a lot of it bunkum) in the last few weeks saying we need an Obama, a messianic figure for Ireland. Before we get carried away with ourselves, let’s see how Obama himself delivers on all the universe of hope and change and expectations that have built him around him over the next 100 or 200 days.
But Cowen sorely needs to borrow a little of Obama’s thunder. He has been a charisma free zone since becoming Taoiseach. His energy levels have been decidedly defatigable. His speeches have been flat. His Dail contributions have been so comatose that you almost worry about there being a pulse.
Before he became Taoiseach, we though: straight-talker who will grasp the nettle by the stem.
After he became Taoiseach: all convoluted jargon, afraid to take a decision.
The opposition and some of the frighteningly reactive media (and from where do they derive all their authority… from God?) have catigated him and his colleagues for failing to come up with quick silver bullet solutions.
But we have seen too many quick silver bullet solutions from too many administrations that have turned out to have shot blanks. Look at the new bail-out proposed by Gordon Brown and co in the UK this morning – is this the third, or fourth, Big Bank solution that the British government has been forced to come up with?
So in a way, the Government has been correct in resisting calls for instant solutions. And I see nothing wrong with using the social partnership process as long as what emerges isn’t a fudge.
But Cowen, seemingly the most authoritative figure within the party of his generation, has shown an alarming lack of it as Taoiseach.
Members of his own Cabinet, who weren’t favoured by flattery or promotion, are sniping about him behind his back.
The jury is still out about Mary Coughlan as Tánaiste. Is she more Joe Biden or Sarah Palin?And can she get beyond the flippancy she sometimes displays?
Why has neither Cowen nor Lenihan killed the dangerous rumour doing the rounds that there is a rift between them? There’s no doubt about it that Lenihan has gained authority since become Finance Minister. But perhaps he needs to take in a specialist adviser on economics. Is it an arrogant barristerial thing but there seems to be a Michael McDowellite ‘it’s my way or the highway’ air to him?
A very senior colleague of mine said that Cowen’s apprenticeship was long enough and that he should have on top of the job from day one.
But, on reflection, it doesn’t work quite like that. It’s a job like no other. There is an inbuilt paradox. You don’t really know if somebody will make a good Taoiseach until they are in the job.
There’s no big )ie macro) decision that Cowen has made since becoming Toaiseach that you could truly say was a bad one. No matter how much it is parsed, Lisbon was lost before he got his paws on the baton. All the decisions taken on the economy have been reactive like those of other governments… and have closely followed their pattern. Sadly, all have been sticking plaster solutions. But that’s not different from anybody else.
He’s made a couple of political gaffes, on Lisbon and on the economy. The handling of the withdrawal of medical cards for over 70s was woeful. The bringing forward of the Budget was always a stunt designed for optics but has been ruthlessly exposed as such since then.
But all of these are the slings and arrows you expect, the minutiae and reverses and backslides that are part and parcel of political life.
Cowen’s failure has been on wider scale. And John Maloney, his very close colleague, put his finger on the pulse last week (whatever his intention about his comments finding a wider audience).
The Taoiseach has been listless and defensive and cautious and deeply unimpressive since day one. Fianna Fail’s bruiser suddenly seems cowed, overwhelmed by it all.
On a technical note, the communications strategy hasn’t been up to the mark. In Britain, dozens are employed as communications strategists and advisers. There are only a handful involved here. And it’s not just spin. It’s making sure that the message is conveyed as simply and effectively as possible. Who lets Cowen go cross country with long meandering jargon-filled answers? Who tells him to be so cautious that often what he says is not worth listening to? Who edits him and distills his message down to his essence? Who ensures that he inject the necessary discipline and focus when playing the politcal game… his equivalent of the scary determination that you can read in Padraig Harrington’s eyes? Who allows him to read so many mind-numbingly boring scripts written by civil servants without editing them?
The big question to me is the following:
Who doused the fire in his belly?
He won’t be gowned or downed by his second 100 days. But the signs are ominous.
Brian Cowen needs to find his measure. And quickly. If not, he will flounder during his third 100 days (with local elections and Lisbon II on the cards) and be ditched by the time the fourth 100 days has come to an end.