The actors are ready, the Kabuki is about to begin

Ignatieff will play the front-runner. He reassures. He denies he is the front-runner.


The actors are ready, the Kabuki is about to begin

Autumn, and an old Liberal’s heart turns to thoughts of infighting. The Liberal Party of Canada’s Ontario wing invited candidates for the party’s leadership to a weekend board meeting in Toronto. There are three such fellows: Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Dominic LeBlanc. They agreed to meet the party brass. Then Rae realized there would be no reporters at the event. He decided he couldn’t attend. “It sends an awful signal to have a debate that is closed to media,” he said in a news release.

Ignatieff’s people said rules are rules. This was always going to be a private meeting, they said. Changing the rules at the last minute would send an awful signal.

LeBlanc said he agreed with Rae: closed meeting? Awful signal. But he couldn’t boycott the meeting. What an awful signal that would send! Mostly, though, LeBlanc could only mourn the Rae-Ignatieff feud. You know what a Rae-Ignatieff feud is? It’s a signal is what it is. What kind of signal? Awful.

Thus the three candidates for the leadership of the Party Formerly Known As Naturally Governing settle into their parts in a theatre as ancient and rigidly defined as kabuki. Each has a role assigned by circumstance. Because none can change circumstance, each will play his role to the hilt.

Ignatieff plays the front-runner. He reassures. He denies he is the front-runner. He is accompanied by mighty organizers who confer with him urgently and, in various other ways, conjure impressions of inevitability.

The front-runner will win if there are no surprises. So he hates surprises. He will not say a cross word about anyone, but he cannot help mistrusting the other candidates because they bring surprise. This is the conflict that drives his character: he loves all, but he must not permit them to act. So, loving all, he will crush them.

Bob Rae is the challenger. His central characteristic is that he does not understand why he has to be the challenger. What the hell? He thought he had this thing. In 2006 he surrounded himself with the shiniest veterans of previous regimes. He spoke without scripts. In debates he rose from his chair while everyone else stayed sitting. He’s his own guy. He can do this. It was clear to him. He waited for it to become clear to everyone.

When Stéphane Dion won nobody was in a worse mood than Rae. Hadn’t you people been listening? Finally he decided he would just have to wait longer for his competence to triumph.

Now the moment arrives. The challenger awakes, and is amazed to discover that not everyone has been waiting. Ignatieff was gathering support while Rae gathered strength, and support is better. The challenger will lose if there is no surprise. So he must create surprises.

That’s why he decided the private meeting over the weekend had to be a public debate. It’s why he showed up outside the meeting, not to fold his tent and debate anyway, but to explain to reporters why he couldn’t take part in such a sham. It’s why he has proposed 13 public debates before Liberals choose delegates to the conventions. The challenger is prepared to talk forever if, in so doing, he can goad the front-runner into opening his own mouth. Perhaps a surprise will fall out. At this point that is the challenger’s best hope.

Dominic LeBlanc is the spoiler. He can win only on a complicated bank shot. He needs the front-runner to lose so spectacularly he takes the challenger with him. The good news is that it actually worked last time, for Stéphane Dion. The bad news has the good news outnumbered. First, after it worked for Dion, everything else stopped working. Second, Dion had candidates behind him who could rally to him. LeBlanc has nobody to rally to him except himself. Because he really needs Ignatieff and Rae to screw up big time, he will be saddened to discover that everything they do is evidence of their folly. He will often be heard clucking mournfully.

There is a fourth player, stationed just offstage. The three contestants mention him often and cast worried glances in his direction. He is Stephen Harper. Does he have a favourite? Each new clue contradicts the last. Perhaps a centre-right figure like Ignatieff could mow the electoral lawn under the Harper Conservatives. Maybe an old New Democrat like Rae could end vote-splitting on the left. Maybe young LeBlanc could make Harper look like yesterday’s man. Or perhaps the incumbent could crush them all.

Like any menace, Harper becomes more terrible in his opponents’ imagination with every passing month. Once they called him their best guarantee of success. Now he has become the first national Conservative leader since Sir John A. Macdonald to defeat two different Liberal opponents. Can nobody stop him?

These are the characters and the shape of the stage. The play will last until delegates are selected in March for the May convention. Ignatieff must be gentle and all-embracing so he can grow toward a majority of delegates. LeBlanc must be gentle and all-embracing in case Ignatieff’s shtick doesn’t work. Rae needs to goad Ignatieff. He will be hounded at every turn by the front-runner’s supporters, who love when their man talks and are badly upset when anyone talks back.

Probably Ignatieff will win. Probably this is the last time the Liberals will surrender to the increasingly dubious charms of a delegated convention. Will Harper crush a third Liberal? I’m sure I couldn’t begin to guess.


The actors are ready, the Kabuki is about to begin

  1. So. you’re saying that both Rae and LeBlanc will hang on until after Christmas?

  2. No, I’m going to wait until you make a prediction, Anon, and then bet against it, because you’ve been wrong 90 times already. Want me to go through the list again?

  3. NO ONE loves a good narrative like the Liberals.

  4. Well you only stated one fact in the whole damn article so it wasn’t hard to track down which one you got wrong. :)

    Diefenbaker beat 2 Liberal leaders; Louis St Laurent in 1957 & Lester Pearson in 1958

  5. john g is right!


  6. If only Charles Bird were to run; he would surely crush them all.

  7. The problem with fighting yesterday’s battle is that was yesterday…..it appears to me the Liberal’s are caught in a time warp, not much different than the when they were caught in a time warp when they elected Turner and when they elected Martin.

    Their problem is I dont know if they have much of a choice. The only benefit is that whoever wins, Rae or Ignatieff are of such an age that this is the last battle for the leadership for either of them. The Liberals get to change generations after either losing the next election or two elections from now (assuming they win the next one).

    In the interests of seeing a functioning political system in this country one hopes they elect a leader who knows how to build policy, brand and fundraising…none of which are short term things by the way……

    Watching with interest from the sidelines.

  8. Love the post. Accurately highlights the fears and nervousness of Ignatieff and the arrogance and emptiness of Rae.

  9. Wells, who is sometimes glib and often cryptic, really nailed this one. rotflmmfaho!

  10. Actually, I don’t think LeBlanc’s “bank shot” is that Ignatieff loses so spectacularly that he takes Rae with him. The only way LeBlanc can possibly win is if he’s not eliminated on the first ballot. And that only happens if he gets more delegates than either Rae or Ignatieff… It seems more likely at this point that LeBlanc can inch ahead of Rae. Then, on the second ballot, he gathers up the Challenger’s indignant supporters to (once again) deny the front-runner of the prize.

    Does this count as two errors in the piece? Or am I missing something…

  11. Mr. Wells is focusing on the irrelevant – which is beginning to form a pattern.
    What really is the issue is not the personalities and how they play out in some Japanese drama (nice imagery Paul) but whether the party (THIS version of the party) can do anything to inspire jaded supporters and more importantly voters!
    Barack Obama wins on his personality and an inspiring vision…but does he sit back and wait for a coronation? Nope – he gathers around him a most impressive team because he knows leadership is all about inspiring others to follow and want to participate.
    This lot thus far – are competing more for how many “place-holders” in the caucus they can attract – and frankly those place-holders – plus the current slate of riding executives (mostly planted by Martin / Earnscliffe) do not look at all inspirational (and this is a Liberal writing).
    All I am looking for right now is the lesser of the two evils (much as the voters have in the last three elections) and I will judge that by how few former Earnscliffe principals each candidate has surrounded himself with!

  12. @jm

    For LeBlanc to win, and I think our author is right, people have to vote against “their choices” which is exactly what happened when they chose Dion. Grassroot Liberal activists said to themselves, ‘Neither Rae nor Ignatieff has been a Liberal as long as I have. The same party bigwigs that tried to herd us into “Chretien” or “Martin” camps for the past decade are trying to cram these two down our throats. They’re telling us the only “responsible” choice is to pick between some guy who backs W Bush and hates his own country and a guy who spent most of his life in another party and sucked at it. Screw it. I’m going with my heart.’ And they picked either Kennedy, Hall-Findlay or Dion. All of whom emraced a strategy of coming up the middle. One of whom succeeded.

    Having gone with their hearts once they won’t likely do it again – which makes LeBlanc’s candidacy a long shot. Not to mention you can’t “come up the middle” when there’s only three slots. You’re either first, second or kingmaker.

    LeBlanc denies he wants to be kingmaker. In which case, you’re right, he has to pass either Ignatieff or Rae. Of the two I’d say Rae is the one to pick. But kicking the snot out of Rae makes it unlikely that you’ll win his delegates at convention. And not kicking the snot out of him makes passing him unlikely.

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