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In Depth

Liberal Party

The high-wire candidacy of Michael Ignatieff

November 27, 2006

About Michael Ignatieff, it was the eager invocation of the memory of Pierre Trudeau that sent out the first signal of things to come. In almost hushed voices Liberals in the know said that Ignatieff had "the Trudeau thing."

Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

That was in the early winter of 2005, almost two years ago, as the weakness of the Liberal party was becoming painfully apparent for all to see. At that time, one of those eternal Liberal insiders was talking about plans then afoot to choose a successor to Paul Martin as leader of the party.

There are two ways to choose a leader, he said. Either you organize so hard on behalf of an individual that the choice becomes inescapable because of the massive organization. That was how Paul Martin came to be leader and prime minister.

Or, you push an individual forward and the choice becomes inevitable because of the outstanding qualities of that individual. That had been the case back in 1968 when Trudeau, the instant political star, improbably waltzed into the Liberal leadership.

As a buildup for any candidate, that was heavy stuff. The eternal insider would not reveal any names. But, yes, he said, he did have a candidate, and it was a candidate that would fit into the second category, an inevitable-because-of-his-star-qualities candidate.

A few weeks later he did reveal the name of his candidate. It was Michael Ignatieff. Not, of course, exactly like Trudeau, he conceded. But someone who was bilingual, brilliant, handsome, charismatic, charming, an outsider not scarred by the brutalities of the recent Liberal wars.

Not Trudeau, but close. You understand what I'm saying, he said.

Trudeau or close to Trudeau, it was good enough to rocket the comparatively unknown Ignatieff to the top of the Liberal party leadership race. In the early days at least nobody else could compete with even Trudeau Lite. But the question now is whether that buildup will be enough to carry him to the final ballot next weekend?

Trudeau's ghost

The Liberal party, of course, has never recovered from Pierre Trudeau. Nor, in a way, has Canada. He was the mysterious outsider whose cool, hip confidence was flattering and exciting to a country that had always been ruled by men in three-piece suits.

Trudeau was certainly not to everyone's taste, but there was nobody who did not notice him, and even his critics acknowledged the excitement. His mark on Canada's public life has endured.

Michael Ignatieff himself is not to be blamed for the Trudeau comparison. Indeed, he insisted from the start "There was one Pierre Trudeau; there's not going to be another." But from the start, the Trudeau ghost was there.

Whatever the candidate may have thought, his supporters wanted to believe that Ignatieff was the dashing outsider who would rescue the Liberal party in its hour of need.

But the parallel did not really fit. For a start, Trudeau was not a raw rookie. He had served briefly as justice minister; he had been an MP for three years; he had worked in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa and had spent most of his adult life at least on the periphery of political life.

In contrast, Ignatieff only became an MP on the night Paul Martin stepped down from the leadership. He had travelled the world, taught university and written books, but for 35 years he had paid no more than occasional visits to Canada, his native land.

It did not take Ignatieff's opponents long to discover his past speeches and journalism in which he assiduously identified himself as an American. He talked and wrote of we, us, our way of life, our constitution, and our leaders; he even went so far as to say "Being an American is not easy."

As The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson wrote: "He has the fewest Canadian scars by virtue of having fought the fewest battles in his own country, a fact that, in other countries, would almost automatically disqualify anyone from serious leadership ambitions but that, in this country, at least inside the weakened Liberal party, has apparently become an advantage."

The Quebec stumble

Ignatieff's long absence from the country was not just a problem for its political optics. The man is a quick study, but there have been times when his judgments seemed too much the product of quick study rather than mature reflection. At one stage he protested that "I don't feel I've been away at all," but it didn't look that way.

The issue with which his lack of familiarity appeared to hurt him most seriously was the Quebec question. Of Quebec and the Constitution, Ignatieff said "we must bring this unfinished business to a successful conclusion."

Theoretically, he is right. Some day. But until recent days there has been no political pressure to re-open the constitutional debate, and the polls suggest there is certainly no political advantage. Only someone who was outside the country for the period of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord would want to begin that all over again.

As the Globe and Mail said in an editorial: "No one who survived the corrosive constitutional wars of the past two decades would ever willingly revisit the issue. What can Mr. Ignatieff be thinking?" What, indeed.

The Quebec issue, of course, has suddenly moved to a new footing. What could Stephen Harper have been thinking when he threw himself into the debate by proclaiming that Quebecers are a nation? Or, as he dangerously insisted, not Quebecers but Quebecois.

The prime minister was obviously trying to wrong-foot both the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals, and in that endeavour he succeeded brilliantly. In the process, he may also have deflected some of the heat that was threatening to scorch Ignatieff in the final run-up to the leadership vote.

It is not as though Ignatieff does not understand nationalism. He has witnessed and written compellingly about nationalism throughout the western world, including Quebec. He understands the instability and peril that is the companion of agitated expectations.

Knowing what he knows, why would he take the chance of igniting those dangerous fires again? What's more, the Ignatieff campaign team includes some of the shrewdest of Liberal advisers. Where were they when their guy took off for a ramble through constitutional poison ivy?

Ready for prime time?

Similar questions must be asked about Ignatieff's comments about the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict during the summer. He was perfectly correct to say that Lebanese deaths were inevitable when rocket launchers were set up within 100 metres of civilians; it was a bit casual, however, for him to say he was not losing much sleep over it.

He managed to survive that stumble, but then he suddenly announced in an interview that the deaths that he had at first described as inevitable, if regrettable, were in fact a war crime on the part of Israel.

The immediate effect was to persuade some prominent Liberals, members of the Jewish community, to drop their support for Ignatieff, and some then quit the party altogether.

The broader impact was that Liberals turned back to those other questions that had nagged at the Ignatieff campaign from the start.

He was an outspoken defender of Canadian troops in Afghanistan at a time when many Canadians were having doubts. He had been an early cheerleader for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. He had even excused what he called coercive interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners— what others have described as torture.

In a matter of a very few weeks, the Teflon campaign was beginning to look a bit grubby.

Ignatieff does not seem to have been scarred by doubts. He is certainly not a man lacking in self-esteem. Rather, he seems to regard himself with disturbing reverence: "I'm proud of a lifetime of careful, thoughtful public commentary."

He boasted of himself to the National Post as "somebody who says what I think. I've taken clear positions on difficult issues because I think this is a time when the country doesn't want to be administered. It doesn't want to be managed. It wants to be led, led by a democratic politician who's willing to lead from the front and take the risks that go with it."

Those are confident words from a newcomer to politics, indeed almost a newcomer to the country.

From the day this leadership race formally began, Michael Ignatieff has been in the lead. He has looked unbeatable, a combination of his own talent and appeal, and the brashness of senior Liberals who convinced themselves that they could package a winning commodity.

The leadership campaign has entered that dark and uncertain stage when it is impossible to be certain. There have been too many mistakes and blunders and curious political judgments.

So the unbeatable and the invulnerable candidate now looks as though he may be beatable and vulnerable after all. The path to the final ballot on Saturday is rocky indeed, and there is no more loose talk about "the Trudeau thing."

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