Ignatieff is getting better, but is he good enough?

In some ways so elegant and self-assured, in others so bumbling

He’s getting better, but is he good enough?Not long after Michael Ignatieff entered Canadian politics, about the time of his first run for Liberal leader, Maclean’s ran a cover story on him with the memorable title, “Are you good enough for Michael Ignatieff?” It was a funny line, but it also captured the real dilemma that confronts him, as a patrician intellectual who is slumming it in democratic politics, an international media star stooping to, of all places, Canada.

Politics is always a complicated interplay of resentments and insecurities, the public’s as much as the candidate’s. We want them to be better than us in some way, and yet the same as us in others. They have to want the job, but not to need it. It’s a messy, not to say chaotic process, but also incredibly subtle: we have such finely tuned antennae, we humans, for reading each others’ needs and weaknesses—even through a TV set. I suppose what we really want is someone secure enough in himself to be willing to debase himself for our benefit.

The sophistication this demands from the candidate is particularly acute for those possessed of conspicuous talents, or aristocratic bearing, or some other point that marks them out from the rest of us. These can be a blessing, or a curse, depending on the taste, or lack of it, with which they are displayed: that instinct for the appropriate, that ability to find, without evident calculation or effort, the precisely right word or gesture, to convey that breezy confidence we call charm. Kennedy had it. Trudeau, admired even by those who despised him, did as well. And Ignatieff? Not so much.

It’s a puzzle: in some ways so elegant and self-assured, in other ways so awkward, even bumbling. Those first two years were excruciating. The sheer number of bricks dropped—over Quebec, over Lebanon and Israel, later in that peculiar piece in the New York Times, in which he explained his recent recanting of his support for the war in Iraq as a matter of political “reality” versus academic “theory”—made him something of a figure of fun, as did his occasional fits of effetery. (“I am a fan of the game of hockey, but not necessarily a hockey fan.”)

Even when he was not wandering violently off-key, the calculation was all too evident. When, at the height of last fall’s coalition crisis, he attempted to straddle the issue, publicly praising the coalition even as he, or unnamed minions, privately disavowed it—yes, his signature, along with that of every other Liberal MP, was on that letter to the Governor General formally requesting that she call upon the coalition to govern, but look here, he was the last one to sign—it all seemed just a little too clever.

Since then, however—and especially since taking over the leadership from Stéphane Dion and dispatching his rival, Bob Rae, with brutal finesse—Ignatieff has shown a much surer touch. Yes, his performance at that first press conference as leader was a little uneven—when he tried to establish his rural bona fides on the strength of some childhood visits to his uncle’s dairy farm in the Eastern Townships (“I like the smell”), the gallery laughed at him. And yes, he has a distressing fondness for the first person singular (“They [the Tories] have a budget because I voted to pass the budget,” he reminded reporters the other day, as if he had wielded his own personal veto). But overall, he has caught the public’s mood, found the right tone, and positioned his party well.

In the wake of the coalition fiasco, he has been patient, disciplined, reluctant to grasp too eagerly for power, finally provoking the NDP and the Bloc to break up the coalition (as surely was his aim) over his decision to support the budget. Yet he was able to do so without appearing weak: it was the Tories who were seen to have capitulated to the Liberals, and not the other way around. Another potentially damaging episode, in which a half-dozen Liberal MPs from Newfoundland broke ranks to vote against the budget, was likewise defused without lasting damage.

In the House, he has been dignified, or as close to it as Canadian politics gets, with the partisan rhetoric kept more or less in check. His attempts to reach out to the West, to rural Canada, and to Jews—all constituencies the Liberals have tended to ignore, or actively antagonized—have been well received, if warily. Most of all, he has accomplished that most difficult of feats, for an opposition leader: getting noticed. And it’s begun to pay off: the Liberals have drawn even in the polls, or near to it, with the Conservatives. Some polls put Ignatieff’s personal approval rating ahead of the Prime Minister’s.

But of course, he has much more work to do before he can even think of facing the electorate, not least imposing some order on his wayward party. (He’s sort of like the president of Afghanistan: he controls the capital, but out in the provinces, all is in the hands of the warlords.) Fundraising, organization, policy: the Liberals are bereft of all three. And lying in wait are the Tories, ready to tear his fragile, still-forming public image to shreds: his 30-year absence from the country, his intellectualism, his high-born background, all will be used against him, preying upon our reverse snobbery, our secret doubts that he is “one of us.” Perhaps it would be truer to say that Michael Ignatieff is not yet good enough for us.

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