How much do we really know?
Brian Cowen’s interview with Gerald Barry on This Week yesterday was one of his better ones. (You can listen to the full interview here.)
He warmed up towards the end and you could hear from his voice that he was speaking in real English and probably gesticulating his arms, and not just coming out the civil servant nonsense lingo.
There was one gobblygedook clanger in the course of the interview, he said:
“The cost to the economy would have been far greater if the counterfactual were allowed to develop.”
That was really sore on the ears.
So is Brian Cowen a poor Taoiseach or just a poor communicator as Taoiseach? Or is the counterfactual the case?
Well, there are those who are close to him that say that he has done much better in the job than the media has given him credit for.
They argue that the media concentrates unduly on the communications function and the optics. They judge the entier performance only on how well he does in spontaneous interviews known as doorsteps or on television or on radio.
And he doesn’t do well in any of those unless he is roused into oratorial mode (about once a year) or he’s getting aggressive (conventional wisdom is that it’s not good for a leader to be trading insults and sledging).
According to them, and Batt O’Keeffe would be the strongest proponent of this theory, Cowen’s real strengths come to the fore behind closed doors and among his Cabinet colleagues.
That’s all very well. But all we can judge on is what we witness and what we are told.
What we do know about Cowen
On the plus side.
1. He is the most hands-on Taoiseach for a generation, with his finger in every pie.
2. Unlike Bertie, he chairs and takes an active part in all the Cabinet sub-committees
3. He is a good delegator and he is also demanding.
4. His breadth of knowledge is very impressive
5. He is bright and sharp, has a good grasp of all the big issues, including the economy.
On the downside
1. He goes native in every Department he goes into, appropriating the language. Within weeks he talks like a senior mandarin from Foreign Affairs or Finance, or whereever he has gone.
2. Unfortunately, he also appropriate the modus operandi. Cautious, careful, don’t rock the boat.
3. He has had an image in the past for being decisive but it has never been backed up by decisive decisions. He is, like Bertie, a waverer.
4. Has he blinked in the face of crisis? There’s anecdotal evidence that he may have been willing to backslide, during the tense negotiations with unions in the run-up to Christmas.
I was talking to a very experienced colleague yesterday who remarked that Cowen seems in much better form than he was last year. Even though he was the heir apparent and knew the top jop was his for the asking, this colleague believes that Cowen had never thought it through until he got it.
Cowen could be a minister and also enjoy a social life. But being Taoiseach meant ditching the entirety of the other life. It took him a time to reconcile himself to that reality. It wasn’t helped by the unrelenting nature of the crisis that he inherited. According to my wise friend, that got to him, made him ask himself did he want the job or not. It reached a nadir during the middle part of last year. And his performance then was just woeful.
A few of the Toaiseach’s colleagues have said that he is much sparkier of late. That may coincide with the end of the period of soul-searching. Time will tell. Cowen’s work- appetite and energy levels fluctuate a little, unlike his predecessor who was always ‘on’.
Politically, I can’t see him pulling any irons out of the fire for the next Election.
I think that he will look more towards posterity, in terms of history judging him as a good or bad Taoiseach. The copybook is already blotted but he has two and a half years – and that’s more than enough to recover, or sustain, a political reputation.