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Justin Trudeau and the ghost of Michael Ignatieff

Is it time for the Liberal leader to start writing his memoir of failure?


 

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, right, greets supporters as he arrives at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Montreal in 2009, as MP Liberal Justin Trudeau looks on. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Has Justin Trudeau’s moment already passed? Should he start taking notes now for his book about how it all went wrong?

Perhaps it would be rash to abandon all hope. But look at this poll. From a high of 36% and a six-point lead—by the measure of Ipsos Reid—the Liberals are at 31% and one point behind the Conservatives. The Liberals trail the Conservatives by 17 points on the economy and 10 points among those born outside the country. In terms of understanding the middle class—the theme to which Mr. Trudeau has clung since declaring himself a candidate for leadership—the Liberals trail the NDP by eight points.

So maybe that’s that. Maybe this summer’s polling is now destined to be regarded as the high point for Trudeau the Younger. Maybe it will only ever get worse from here.

“Look at Justin’s polls, compare them to mine,” Michael Ignatieff said recently. “I’m in no position to offer this guy any advice at all.”

Whatever Mr. Ignatieff now understands about his own limitations, here he was being too humble.

From March 2009 to June 2009, his third through sixth months as leader of the Liberal party, Mr. Ignatieff enjoyed a polling advantage over the Conservatives. That lead wasn’t quite as large as the one Mr. Trudeau enjoyed this summer, but it was a lead that persisted for awhile. And then it went away. And it never came back. From a three-point advantage in the spring of 2009, Mr. Ignatieff ended up with a 21-point deficit in the spring of 2011.

That result and the two years he spent working his way to it can obscure the fact that Michael Ignatieff could have been prime minister. To say so is not merely to acknowledge that he was once leader of a major political party at the federal level in this country, nor that he was once leader of the Liberal party of Canada, one of the most dominant political institutions of the 20th century, nor that he could have, in theory, defeated the Conservatives in the House of Commons in January 2009 and sought the Governor General’s permission to form a new government.

It is, instead, to say that it is possible to imagine the Michael Ignatieff Experiment succeeding. It is, in the abstract and hypothetical, possible to concoct a mildly plausible alternative universe in which it works out better for Mr. Ignatieff and he ends up occupying, for some amount of time, the Prime Minister’s office on the second floor of Centre Block.

What if the Liberals hadn’t lost their hold on government as a result of the 2006 election? What if, even if they did, Paul Martin hadn’t resigned as leader? What if Mr. Ignatieff hadn’t gotten into politics five or ten years sooner? What if Mr. Ignatieff doesn’t say those silly things about Israel, Hezbollah and Qana? What if Mr. Ignatieff doesn’t lose the Liberal leadership vote in 2006? What if Bob Rae pledges his support to Mr. Ignatieff after the third ballot? What if Jack Layton doesn’t hobble his way to a transcendent campaign in 2011? What if the 2011 election had happened six months later than it did? What if Nigel Wright had had cause to write Mike Duffy a cheque in February 2011, not February 2013? What if he’d had different advisers? What if he’d simply summoned a lifetime of study and risen to the occasion?

Maybe it still doesn’t work out somehow for Michael Ignatieff. But maybe, with a few changes in the story, a generally decent man of above-average intellect with some talent for engaging with the public and a certain ability to deliver a speech and an impressive life story, ends up prime minister.

As it is, Mr. Ignatieff’s story is still almost unremarkable. At least in that he lost.

In the history of this country, precisely 16 men have become prime minister subsequent to leading their parties to sufficient success in a federal election. (This subtracts the six prime ministers who assumed the post as a result of party succession and did not subsequently lead their party to a good enough election result.)

Five of those—Messrs. Laurier, Borden (twice), Meighen, Pearson (twice) and Harper failed before they succeeded. To those redeemed losers, you can count a larger group of of those who have led a political party of reasonably numerous candidates without ultimate success, including, depending on one’s parameters, all or some of Edward Blake, Charles Tupper, Thomas Crerar, JS Woodsworth, HH Stevens, Robert Manion, MJ Coldwell, John Bracken, George Drew, Tim Buck, Solon Low, RN Thompson, Tommy Douglas, Robert Stanfield, David Lewis, Real Caouette, Hardial Bains, Fabien Roy, Ed Broadbent, Cornelius I, John Turner, Mel Hurtig, Neil Paterson, Audrey McLaughlin, Kim Campbell, Preston Manning, Alexa McDonough, Jean Charest, Stockwell Day, Joan Russow, Jack Layton, Jim Harris, Elizabeth May and Stephane Dion. That is some 40 men and women we, as a voting public, have rejected, dismissed or, in some cases, barely even bothered to notice were candidates. And to them you might add every vaguely plausible candidate for a party leadership, a group that would, from just this century, include Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, Ken Dryden, Sheila Copps, John Manley, Dominic LeBlanc, Jim Prentice, Scott Brison, Tom Long, Belinda Stronach, Tony Clement, Bill Blaikie, Lorne Nystrom and Joe Comartin.

Every choice of leader is, at best, a guess. Some, like Mr. Ignatieff, might be considered experiments.

So why did the Ignatieff experiment fail? For probably all of the reasons that now seem obvious. Because he didn’t win the argument. Because he didn’t do enough to make his argument. Because he never settled on a set of ideas or a pithy idea of himself—or at least he didn’t settle early enough. Because he never quite figured out how to be the politician he needed to be to convince the public that he, not Stephen Harper, should be prime minister. Because the public wasn’t convinced in sufficient number that Stephen Harper was doing a particularly bad job at running the country. Because we tend not to change governments easily or quickly. Because minority parliaments are difficult to navigate. Because the Liberal party was not as well-constructed a machine as the Conservative party. Because Jack Layton, his political opposite, gutted him like a fish live on national television. Because town hall meetings with the general public during an election campaign might seem noble—a purer kind of democracy—but they offer little in the way of practical advantages. Because that night in Sudbury might have felt like something in the room, but it didn’t reverberate in the same way beyond those walls. Because he didn’t know what he was doing and it took him too long to figure it out (if he ever did). Because he didn’t have the time or opportunity to fail and then learn from that failure.

He didn’t fail because the Conservatives ran lots of television ads that said mean things about him. He failed because he and his party didn’t mount a sufficient response.

What else? Maybe people just didn’t like him. Possibly it was something about his tone or the way he looked or the way he smiled. Perhaps he was too willing to be introspective, too willing to break the fourth wall and speak of politics as a thing he was doing.

“It’s hard to imagine what it is he’s said or done in the last month, other than threatening an election, which I think is a key factor here, to produce such a precipitous decline,” a pollster told me in October 2009, in the midst of what might’ve been Mr. Ignatieff’s lowest point before election night in 2011. “He probably didn’t deserve the high approval rating he got in the spring, but he probably doesn’t deserve to be pilloried to the extent that he is right now. He’s gone from being the messiah to the village idiot. It’s the same guy. I’m glad it’s not me, but I find it almost kind of tragic and comic the way the public looks at these things.”

Yes, well, sure. It is tragic and it is comic, but it is also always seems somehow just. Or maybe that’s just ex post facto rationalization.

In Mr. Ignatieff’s case it seems now like his result makes perfect sense. But it is necessary to remember that he was not, from the outset, an obviously lost cause. As late as the first week of the 2011 campaign it seemed that Mr. Ignatieff had found his voice (and Jack Layton’s campaign was doomed). And then fate intervened. Or his fate became unavoidable. Or all of the missteps and shortcomings of he and his party were finally tallied.

He was supposed to be an improvement upon Stephane Dion and yet Mr. Ignatieff managed worse. It is entirely plausible that Mr. Trudeau (or Thomas Mulcair, for that matter) will fare no better. It is still somewhat surprising that Stephen Harper ever managed to succeed, let alone succeed as often and for as long as he has. For all the pundits and strategists and former strategists now working as pundits, it is basically always true that no one really knows anything for sure and everyone is just basically guessing (with varying degrees of education).

In Fire and Ashes, Mr. Ignatieff writes about fortune and timing and it is tempting to consider the fates of the men and women who have succeeded and failed—a straight comparison of the resumes of Stephen Harper and John Turner would render it mind-boggling that the latter was prime minister for 79 days and the former is likely to become at least our sixth-longest serving prime minister—and conclude that politics is fickle. But that would be too easy.

Politics, rather, is unsentimental. It is hard. It does not care about who you are or what you’ve done, only what you say and what you do and how you look in the process of doing and saying those things and whether or not your critics can successfully portray you as an unlikeable and untrustworthy monster. Given the stakes, that seems somehow just.

On the eve of becoming the Liberal party’s latest guess, Justin Trudeau pitched two ideas, “Hope and hard work.”

There is basically everything: that which must be sold and that which is required to sell it. Hard work, not merely in the degree of effort required, but in the degree of difficulty.

This stuff is hard. And it should be. Mr. Ignatieff is, if nothing else, a reminder of that.


 

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