With apologies to the rest of the pack, only four candidates have a real hope of winning---Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy.
Michael Ignatieff was dubbed the front runner in the early days of the race in large part because he attracted so much of the Liberal machine to his cause. Senator David Smith, the insider’s insider was among the first to perceive in Ignatieff a 21st century Pierre Trudeau. But as Karl Marx might have said---everything in the Liberal Party happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Ignatieff’s problems are multifold---he is not, as Trudeau was, a Quebecois federalist who can save Canada from the sovereignists. On top of that, Ignatieff’s support for the American-led invasion of Iraq is an issue that will not go away. The proudest moment in the saga of modern Canadian Liberalism was when Jean Chretien announced that Canada would not join George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” According to a story in the Toronto Star, Michael Ignatieff came third in signing up new members of the party by the cutoff date of July 4 for participation in the selection of the new leader. This hard fact has cut into Ignatieff’s momentum. He cannot afford to lose momentum in a race in which his likelihood of winning is the only thing that prevents his warts from being examined under a microscope. The trouble with Ignatieff’s campaign is too much brass and not enough grass. Smoke filled rooms aren’t what they used to be.
Bob Rae should have been a fine Liberal leader and a great prime minister. He speaks well, is highly intelligent and, for a Liberal, is progressive. His problem is his lengthy sojourn in another political party and the fact that he picked the recession plagued early 1990s to be premier of Ontario. Bad luck, and as Napoleon might have said, to become Liberal leader you need to be lucky. Bob Rae has forgotten that aspirations for the future need to fit well with one’s past record. For instance, I wouldn’t mind becoming Pope. In about ten years, I’ll even be the right age. The difficulty is that everything I’ve ever done disqualifies me from making a run for the job. A tell tale sign of the failing Rae campaign is its poor record of signing up new members, especially in Quebec.
Stephane Dion, a thoughtful, gutsy politician, has two strikes against him. As author of the Clarity Act, he is detested by many Quebecers and cannot win the soft nationalist vote in his home province, which is key to the revival of Liberal fortunes. As a former member of the Chretien cabinet, through no fault of his own, Dion has been tarred with the brush of the Sponsorship Scandal. He can’t win.
Gerard Kennedy is the natural next leader of the Liberal Party. Young, attractive, articulate and progressive, he has fewer negatives than his opponents and is ideally placed to appeal to the centre left voters the Liberals must win to push Stephen Harper out of power. Kennedy learned from his run for the leadership of the Ontario Liberals in the 1990s that it is often a bad idea to be the front runner. He lost to Dalton McGuinty who capitalized on an Anyone but Kennedy movement. His big negative is that he and his handlers are so determined to avoid repeating what happened to Kennedy a decade ago that they are in danger of re-fighting the last war. The consequence is that Kennedy’s campaign has been dull, with the generation of disappointingly few policy ideas so far. The real strength of the campaign is on the ground and under the radar. Kennedy’s youthful team is running the legs off the boys in the back rooms. They signed up more new members than anyone else. In September, when everyone figures out that he is the real front runner, Kennedy will have to endure a couple of months of savage scrutiny. He can handle it. His impressive job of turning Ontario’s ministry of education around after years of Tory bloodletting shows that he can deliver.
When Kennedy wins the Liberal leadership, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton will be the big losers. Harper would be well advised to upgrade his skills so he can go back to operating the Gestetner Machine at the National Citizens Coalition. Layton should relearn his socialism and get ready to present radical, attractive ideas aimed at working people---ideas neither Harper nor Kennedy can match.
By James Laxer