Yesterday I went to the Liberal Party leadership debate. While the recent super weekend of delegate selection for the convention made it clear that this is now a fourway race with one definite frontrunner, that frontrunner had a performance so dire yesterday that when all’s said and done he may look back at it as the beginning of the end.
Back in March, at the start of this absurdly long campaign, many observed that the motley crowd of candidates represented some kind of B-team. Liberal Light, as it were. There’s something to that. Ignatieff has been out of the country for 30 years, has no experience and looks like an opportunist. Bob Rae, the former leader of the Ontario NDP, was the most unpopular Premier in province’s history. Which is obviously why he’s decided too eschew ideas. Stéphane Dion is a nice guy and a smart guy, but has all the charisma of a French-Canadian-academic-specialising-in-public-administration turned cabinet minister. And rounding out the top four, Gerrard Kennedy speaks French about as well as this guy, and so cannot win. So you could be forgiven for thinking the Liberals of Mackenzie, Laurier, Pearson and Trudeau could do better. Manley, McKenna and Tobin—members of the apparent A-team—didn’t have the cajones (or were too smart) to run this time around.
On the other hand, the B-team label is somewhat unfair. Of the four left standing on both feet after the delegate selection, there are three PhDs, one Rhodes Scholar, a former KSG heavyweight, etc. So there’s some intellectual fire power there. Though, as Ricardo points out, intellectuals like these, with their grand schemes, never make good. Especially the overtly wonkish type. Rae and Dion really are nothing if not wonks. Even Ignatieff can’t help being a little wonkish, despite his attempts to cultivate a Trudeauesque public persona. He’s also just a little too precious for my liking.
Last week was a disaster for Ignatieff. To recap, in August he said the following about the Israeli bombing of Qana:
Qana was frankly inevitable in a situation in which you have rocket-launchers within 100 yards of a civilian population. This is the nature of the war that’s going on …This is the kind of dirty war you’re in when you have to do this and I’m not losing sleep about that.
This was of course seized upon by the usual suspects as evidence of Ignatieff’s imperialist, Americanist take on the Middle East. Nowhere more so than in Québec. Eager not alienate the large Lebanese community in the province he did the Canadian thing and apologised. So a week ago he went on TV in Québec and said:
I showed a lack of compassion. It was a mistake. And when you make a mistake, even off the cuff, one must admit it…. I was a professor of human rights. I am also a professor of rights in war. And what happened in Qana was a war crime. And I should have said that, that’s clear.
Inevitably, Ignatieff lost a bunch of Jewish support, and a bunch of support from people who don’t want to lose Jewish support. It also opened the door for Harper to level the ‘anti-Isreal’ charge against the Liberals. And that opened the door for Rae and others to point out the obvious: that Iggy might be smart but that he might not be up to the task of big league leadership and politics. Which brings me to the debate.
After a very very bad week, this was Ignatieff’s chance to get back. He dropped the ball miserably. Actually, he never even picked the ball up. He and Rae faced off on a question on foreign policy. Rae was originally against the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Then more recently he came out in favour of it. Essentially he is a man without any clarity on the issue. Ignatieff could have so easily exploited this. Instead he came off looking like a child. He tried to challenge Rae, saying, “I actually don’t know where you stand on this issue.” All Rae had to do was respond with the inevitable:
You certainly do know. For a guy who changed his mind three times in a week with respect to the Middle East….
Then Ignatieff lost it. Sputtering, almost shouting, “Absolutely untrue. You know that’s untrue. You’ve known me for 40 years.”
This is revealing in two ways. First, Rae is simply in a different class as a politician. What Ignatieff should have done is not give Rae the chance for the one-liner by leaving the question open. Putting him on the spot and really challenging him to tell the audience his views on the Middle East and Afghanistan would have made Rae’s lack of ideas the headline this morning. Second, someone has to tell Ignatieff to stop couching everything he says in terms of himself. His parents are buried in Québec, so he trots that out for the unity question. He’s been to Kosovo, so he knows about ethnic conflict. Rae has known him for forty years, so that’s enough to save a gaffe filled week. As a friend remarked today, political campaigns are funny beasts, candidates suffer from deeply ingrained habits and no one dares tell them to change. In my opinion, what Ignatieff needs is for Bruno to tell him what it’s like.