No Such Nonsense

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Anyone but Iggy: the Precipitous Decline of Michael Ignatieff

Just what the hell happened here?

Just before the last election, the Liberal elite was elated to announce that they had convinced noted human rights expert, Harvard professor, sometime journalist and Important Thinker with A Very Big Brain(TM) - one Michael Ignatieff - to come home at last. He was parachuted into a cushy Toronto riding, spoke ardently about his Canadian roots, mused about his passion for public service and all seemed right with world. Here was the brilliant academic returning to Canada in triumph, to become a central figure in Paul Martin's government and a strong heir apparent, the future PM. Or so it seemed.

But Iggy couldn't seem to get his footing. The local riding association got seriously pissy about his parachuting in to bump their own candidate. The election campaign proved bruising and Iggy won, but emerged a little worse for wear. He was accused of being racist and elitist. Opponents dug up articles and quotes that illustrated 1) Iggy had supported the war in Iraq; 2) Iggy had condoned the use of torture by the American government; and 3) Iggy had come to consider himself an American, and to publicly present himself as such (the word 'we' would become to Ignatieff what the word 'is' once was to Bill Clinton). The Liberal party stalwarts can't have been thrilled. The Liberals lost power, Martin resigned and the party leadership campaign began.

Almost immediately, Ignatieff was cited as the frontrunner. He had the support of important party power brokers, he had a lot of money and he had, as noted above, A Very Big Brain. But once again, Ignatieff proved his own worst enemy, spouting off on all topics to the press, consequences be damned. Would he stay in Canada and in parliament if he lost the leadership? "Depends who wins." His opinion on the Middle East? Israeli attacks on Qana were either not worth losing sleep over, or a war crime. He's put his foot in it so often, momentum has shifted to an Anyone but Iggy position. Polls of Liberal Party members indicate he is in first place, but by much less than initially expected. Worse, he is almost no-one's second or third choice, indicating little room to move as candidates drop out at the Leadership Convention. Bob Rae, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy are now within spitting distance of the job originally anointed as Iggy's.

So what's the problem with Ignatieff? My take is that he is simply too used to being the smartest guy in the room. He takes his own council too seriously and dismisses the concerns of others too easily. He has the habit of making broad, pithy declarations that garner attention but may not be carefully thought out; he moves too quickly in an effort to prove how smart he really is. He knows how smart he is, and he wants you to know it too. It's petty, condescending and pointless - and its why he's screwed.

I had the chance to see him in action at his original nomination meeting in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Back then, the Trudeau comparisons were thick on the ground. And, yes, he was cerebral, arrogant and a bit mysterious. But his personal charisma in that room was much more reminiscent of John Kerry - he came across a chilly northeastern academic. Not much there to set the electorate afire. And that's why he will lose. If not the leadership than the next election. Canadians, who see smug-self-satisfaction as one of the worst of sins, are just going to hate this guy.


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