The Liberal leadership race is now between Michael Ignatieff and the others. Ignatieff is the one generating the talk, interest and controversy. The other candidates (and those to come) are mostly positioning themselves within the party, hoping to generate enough support to guarantee a future cabinet post.
Liberal Party politics is all about winning power. Ignatieff has received the support of the party establishment because they think he can win the country. Not a surprise. His backers include party elders — notably, former Trudeau advisor and cabinet heavyweight Marc Lalonde, and party deep pockets, Gerald Schwartz and his wife Heather Reisman,
A Liberal leadership race gives preponderant influence to party insiders. In addition to delegates selected in proportion to the support received at the riding level of each leadership candidate, riding presidents get to come as voting delegates to the Montreal convention, senators and MPs get votes, and so do party executive members. When the math is done, it will show the non-elected delegates having considerable say in the outcome of the leadership vote, as always.
The Ignatieff candidacy is a throwback to the earlier party tradition where the insiders selected an outsider as a candidate. The post war leaders Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau were non-partisans before entering politics, St. Laurent and Pearson at the cabinet level.
Ignatieff traces his roots in the party back to his role as a youth delegate for Trudeau in 1968, but he has been far removed from the political process until claiming a nomination and winning a seat in the last election.
Most of the objections to his candidacy, some serious, some less so, will fall away as the race proceeds.
Yes, he supported the American invasion of Iraq. That alone wins him support among the continentalists in the party, and will not prove fatal to his political career in Canada, though it does raise serious questions about his vision of the world.
Yes, he was outside the country. But what is frequently not mentioned is that he was earning a living as an independent writer and broadcaster, in a way he never could have done in Canada. He walked away from paid academic positions on more than one occasion, which is a tribute not only to his self-confidence, but also to his willingness to take on new challenges.
With a Russian name, Ignatieff qualifies as a multicultural candidate for the Liberal leadership and it would be a first for the party. As the grandson of Principal George Munro Grant, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and longtime head of Queen’s University he also brings maternal family credentials from the intellectual aristocracy of Upper Canada, and the Nova Scotia Scots.
The Liberal party is in mess right now, but it can be fixed up quickly, and win power for another decade. Liberals believe this, and his supporters think Ignatieff is the leader to make it happen.They know the next Liberal leader will have to best the Conservative Stephen Harper, and Jack Layton of the NDP.
Harper won his minority talking about policy ideas, and calling on Canadians to punish the Liberals for their scandals. Ignatieff puts a new face on the party and can handle himself in a debate about ideas. His centre-left language trumps Harper’s right-wing nostrums.
Layton can debate the centre-left issues, but the NDP has chosen not to present a vision for Canada, preferring tactical campaigns probing weakness in the other parties. A strong Liberal party, with an attractive leader facing a not-very-popular Conservative government would not fear a tactical campaign by the NDP.
And then there is Quebec, the key to Canadian electoral success, forever. Ignatieff is very talented speaking French; do not believe the pundits who say otherwise. He can mix it up with anyone in a debate of ideas in French, and will win fans speaking the language.
What he has had to say on Quebec nationalism and Iraq is going to hurt him and Gilles Duceppe will do his best to mock him, and discredit him. However, Duceppe cannot stop Ignatieff from getting the attention of Quebecers looking to move ahead from the parliamentary impasse created by the presence of the Bloc.
What Ignatieff stands for on Quebec within Canada will be important in winning the leadership and in the next election. The main message coming from him to date is about opening a dialogue in Quebec about the meaning of Canadian citizenship: Quebecers can be Quebecers within Canada; they can be both strong Quebecers, and good Canadians.
Having the establishment on his side will help Ignatieff win the Liberal leadership. The race itself will help to judge whether he can inspire people in the country to throw themselves, once again, behind the Liberals.