Globe and Mail, October 3, 2006
Handicaps are hobbling all the Liberal candidates
by Jeffrey Simpson
One person led but nobody won the delegate-selection
process for the Liberal leadership.
The best Michael Ignatieff could do was capture about
30 per cent of the delegates, good enough to be in the
lead but not good enough to be certain of victory.
Mr. Ignatieff had more organizers than his
competitors, lots of money (by the parsimonious
standards of the race), the most media attention, a
certain star quality, the longest position papers, the
slickest website, by far the most endorsements from
Liberal heavyweights, and yet he got 30 per cent.
You would have thought with all Mr. Ignatieff had
going for him, including politically crippled opponents,
that he could and should have done better. That he did
not, and that none of his opponents could ease over 20
per cent, illustrated the simple and perhaps eventually
fatal point that none of these candidates has captured
the party's heart or mind. And having failed in that
mission, to this point, can any one of them expect to
captivate the country?
At one level, Liberals can be proud of the quartet at
the top of their race. They are all intelligent people.
Three have outstanding academic pedigrees: Mr. Ignatieff,
Mr. Rae and Mr. Dion. Three have international
experience. Three have extensive government experience,
excluding Mr. Ignatieff. Three are bilingual, and Mr.
Kennedy can limp along in French.
On sheer brainpower, the Liberal quartet eclipses the
choice Conservatives confronted when they chose a
leader: Stephen Harper, Tony Clement and Belinda
If the quartet stays in politics -- and wins seats in
Parliament -- the Liberals will have a fine cadre of
people with which to build a front bench.
But as leadership candidates, each has handicaps that
have prevented any one of them from blowing the others
Mr. Dion's English, although comprehensible, is
far-from perfect. A lot of Liberals just don't want
another leader from Quebec, francophone or anglophone.
His former cabinet colleagues and MPs are overwhelmingly
supporting other candidates, which tells you something
about how they view his electoral chances and his
ability to build a political team.
On the prairies, especially in Saskatchewan, Mr. Dion
has made an alliance of sorts with David Orchard, a
flaky, marginal political figure who is almost a cult.
Mr. Orchard ran for the leadership of the Progressive
Conservative Party, then switched to the Liberals. He
helped Mr. Dion win delegates, but he's hardly the kind
of ally Mr. Dion wants to put in his national political
Mr. Kennedy is fatally handicapped by his problems in
French. The Liberal Party, given its history and the
need to rebuild (if it can) in Quebec, just won't pick
someone with his linguistic limitations. This might be
unfair and frustrating; it is also political reality.
Mr. Kennedy, the youngest of the quartet, might have
been better positioned had the Liberal Party accepted
defeat in the next election and been therefore looking
for a long-term comeback. But the Conservatives'
inability to push their polling numbers into majority
government territory has the Liberals thinking, perhaps
wrongly, that the party can actually win next time.
Mr. Rae just can't shake his Ontario problem. He has
never adequately acknowledged, through pride or
strategic design, what went wrong in his years as
premier, what lessons he learned, what ideas he now has
that makes the Liberal Party a better vehicle than the
His poor third-place showing in his home province --
behind Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Kennedy -- cannot be
explained away other than Liberals there could not abide
the prospect of his leadership. And if the Ontario
Liberals couldn't, why should Liberals elsewhere who
must know that winning in Ontario is the foundation of
the party's recovery.
These and other limitations crippled these candidates
and prevented them, despite evident strengths, from
getting past 20 per cent.
As for Mr. Ignatieff, that he couldn't crawl above 30
per cent illustrates he grates on a lot of Liberals who
still can't get over his long absence from Canada, his
approach to foreign policy, and his apparent willingness
to gamble on reopening the constitutional file to
recognize Quebec as a "nation."
Someone will obviously win. At this stage, no one is
close, because their handicaps are holding them back.