Ignatieff tries to get a rise out of voters

All through this campaign, Michael Ignatieff has taken the dual risk of speaking without a prepared text and answering many questions that haven’t been scripted from individuals who haven’t been screened and just happened to raise a hand in the crowd that’s turned out to hear him.

But this evening in Sudbury, Ont., he took an even bigger gamble, letting loose at the end of another long question-and-answer session with a Bruce Springsteen-inspired, revival tent-worthy, raspy-throated bid to rouse Canadian voters from their torpor. Some will hear it as impassioned, others as desperate.

It was hard to tell where Ignatieff was heading when he began musing aloud about Springsteen’s post-9/11 anthem “The Rising.” He made reference to its “wonderful refrain, ‘Rise up’.” (Actually, I think he’s got the wrong song; the “Rise up” refrain is from “My City of Ruins” from the same album, The Rising. But that’s beside the point.)

From mentioning the evocative phrase “rise up,” he shifted into a reflection on Stephen Harper’s various shortcomings and mistakes, and, more particularly, to what Ignatieff depicted as the strangely blasé response to it all from Canadians. Harper twice shuts down Parliament, and Canadians, Ignatieff observes, “kind of shrug.” Harper is found in contempt of that same Parliament, and Canadians “say, so what.”

Warming up, Ignatieff ran through the litany of the Bruce Carson affair, charges against Tory organizers for alleged campaign finance violations, the restrictive way Harper handles the media following him, how he dispensed with Helena Guergis, and the fresh story about Conservative attempts to have advance voting at Guelph University disallowed. “And people say,” Ignatieff lamented, “so what, it’s just all political games, who cares.”

Then he was back to The Boss. “And I kept hearing that refrain from Bruce Springsteen. Rise up.” (And louder.) “Rise up!” (And louder still.) Rise up, Canada!” He kept going as the crowd of about 300 started cheering. “Rise up! Rise up! Rise up! Rise up!”

He was feeding off the noise, the way good stump performers do. “We have got to fight here. We have got to stand and fight. This is not about me. This is not about the Liberal party. This is about the kind of democracy we hand to”—now gesturing to kids in the crowd—”this child and this child and this child. We got to rise up. We got to stand, we got to fight and we got to win. This is not about the Liberal Party of Canada. This is about the country you love. So rise up, Canada!”

It’s hard to guess what impact this might have. Depends how it plays on the TV news, I suppose. There’s also the matter of Ignatieff’s repeated references to the apparent indifference of Canadians to events before this campaign and during it—an unconventional tack. It’s dangerous in politics to point to a fault in the reaction of ordinary voters, even if that fault is framed by ostensible outrages committed by one’s political adversary.

On the other hand, injecting fervor can work for a politician in a tough campaign fight—if the stakes appear high enough to justify the emotion. So the question here is, Will voters continue to shrug and say, so what? Or will the heat of Ignatieff’s new intensity fuse his list of Tory derelictions, in the minds of at least some voters, into something more than a bunch of disconnected instances of dubious behaviour?

The post-debate polls were not looking good for the Liberals. Time is not on their side in this campaign. But it’s clear as of tonight is that Ignatieff isn’t going to coast helplessly to May 2 without trying to jolt the campaign in a different direction.

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