He Soft Rocks My World

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Stéphane Dion's election as leader of the Liberals has brought out some particularly numb-skulled commentary, commentary annoying enough to coax me out of my comfortable blogging semi-retirement. James Traver's column in the Star today provides an excellent example:

In an uncharacteristic fit of idealism over pragmatism, Liberals have made Stéphane Dion their new leader and turned federal politics upside down. Dion's triumph over favourite Michael Ignatieff marks a generational shift within the party, pushes the environment to the top of the national agenda and hands Stephen Harper's Conservatives a priceless gift.

Frankly, I've never understood why either Ignatieff or Rae were being presented--and viewed--as "pragmatic" choices for the Liberal leadership. Both were high-risk candidates who should, if Liberals were thinking clearly, have rested near the bottom, not the top, of the pack.

Ignatieff is a near-perfect example of a "star" candatate--a person recruited from outside the politicial field for some qualities that are viewed as appealing. Like most star candidates, his campaign for the leadership was troubled and prone to serious gaffes, one of which threatened to reopen the endless and unproductive constitutional debate. The only thing unusual about Ignatieff's fumbles is that they threatened more than his own campaign.

Candidates without real campaigning experience quite frequently make these kinds of mistakes. It's why they should never be put into leadership positions until they've survived a couple of campaigns and know how not to shoot themselves and their parties in the foot. Oh, and by the way, the same goes for Justin Trudeau, who seems to be being set up to be the next Ignatieff.

Politics is hard. It's not easy to consider how your words and actions are going to affect several different audiences and to choose them to ensure the results you want, especially during a campaign when you will frequently be forced to respond off-the-cuff.

Rae has experience but was a failure as premier of Ontario. Most people I've asked about him consider Rae t be a decent enough guy but could never imagine voting for him again. The idea that the Conservatives were terrified of running against him also strikes me as bizarre. It would be pretty easy for them to run ad campaigns against him reminding Canadians of "Rae days" and portraying him as incompetent. It's possible Rae could have found a way to effectively respond to those attacks, but it can't be denied that a lot of his campaign's time and energy would have to be devoted to rehabilitating him.

Given these choices, Dion seems like a safe enough bet to me. He's been in politics for over a decade. There's no evidence linking him to scandal. And most of all, he's a strongly federalist Quebecker. For the last forty years, the Liberals have won elections when led by a federalist Quebecker and lost elections when led by anyone else.

Dion may or may not be a good leader for the Liberals. However, given a choice between Ignatieff, Rae and Dion, Dion seems like the most pragmatic choice, not an idealistic one.

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38 Comments

Thank you for this piece. I too read Travers' column this morning and found it annoying in the same terms you cite. Just a day or two ago, he'd written that the Harpies would relish a chance to go at Rae. Then today he writes that the Libs made a big mistake electing Dion instead of Rae because the Harperites would have been much more challenged by Rae than by Dion whom they can easily demolish.

Rex Murphy usually betrays a pro-Harper bias, but he at least had the insight to suggest that the Harper party may actually now be facing the more formidable foe.

We'll see.

Hip, Hip, Hoorah! That's all she wrote.

To say that I was surprised to overhear that Stéphane Dion is the new leader of the Liberal party is an understatement. Why, it's almost (stress 'almost') enough to make me consider voting again. But then I came to my senses and remembered that we live in a plutocracy, not a democracy, so I won't waste the gas to drive to the polling station. Thanks for the article.

stephane versus stephen...it's going to be interesting.....what does travers mean by a 'generational shift'????? rae, iggy and dion are still all old school, no matter what. so enviornment is big on dion's list....that's always been with the glibs since kyoto and we'll revert to it if dion becomes pm.

nothing much has changed in the canadian political sphere, what's this 'turned federal politics upside down'??? i think the guy's in shock because the dark cheval slipped in.

I've been waiting for the dufuses (dufi?) to come out of the woodwork and didn't have to wait long. I believed throughout the campaign that both Harper and Layton wanted Iggy as leader and would gladly have been out campaigning for him if they thought it would help. With luck, Canadians will actually have something resembling a clear choice between the Harpies and the Liberals in the next election. As for the NDP, it has far more problems than just Dion being elected Liberal leader.

From a personal standpoint, it doesn't much matter. I'm only slightly more likely to ever vote for the Libs than the Harpies anyway. But Dion was a better choice for the country than Iggy and anything that makes Harper's life more difficult can't be anything but good.

Basically Scout's right.

Selecting Dion means that the Liberal party still feel. that Chrétien and Martin were right. Maybe there were mistakes made in the execution of their policies but the fundamental ideas were correct. You can't find a much stronger symbol of continuity than one of the few people to be in both cabinets.

If people wanted to critique Dion for anything I would have thought this would be it.

I think the biggest knock against dion is that he was in Chretien and Martins cabinets. Both of the are tainted with corruption, and you don't need had evidence to make insinuation in a general election. dion is a Quebec liberal, and adscam funneled money to Quebec liberals. Dion is clean, but how many are going to have difficulty swallowing that. the liberal party needed renewal, and I don't think dion can provide that. He's just been around too long. That's what Rae and Iggy represented, a new liberal party, and that's why they were the favorites, Dion cannot be seen as anything but the old guard, and that is very dangerous. In the election, expect him to be asked to account for everything that Chretien and Martin did or didn't do, making him run on a ten year old record, instead of against a 1 yr old conservative one is the first and best strategy of the Harper conservatives.

Still, Dion, man you could have knocked me over with a feather.

I'm not quite sure what those Conservatives who played the Rae button stunt were thinking either, Kevin.

Even if personal tensions had developed between Ignatieff and Rae, they seem to me very close on most matters. The main difference between them, as you say, is that Rae is the more practised public tactician. His adventures into Iraqi constitution-writing, though, struck me as very Iggy-esque naïveté, which made me wonder just how independent-minded he would be on foreign policy.

My favourite tame Conservative remarked to me today that Layton must be feeling relieved to see Rae gone, the implication being that Rae would have drawn the most soft-left votes away from the NDP, but I don't see that. I don't think that was ever true. If the Conservatives were thinking that, they were just silly; more likely they were worried about him as an effective campaigner who is showing himself to be more and more conservative all the time.

I think Dion is a tougher problem for the NDP -- a better partner in a minority-government situation, but more likely to attract soft-left votes in an election.

The idea that the conservatives were terrified of running against Rae is *ludicrous*. The conservatives put that little piece of propaganda out there in hopes that the delegates would see it and vote for Rae. They couldn't have asked for anyone better. Hell, I could see the campaign ads in my head.

*overhead shot of 40,000 people converging on the Ontario legislature*

--booming voice of doom--
This was the picture when Bob Rae ran Ontario. Do you want to give him the keys to the country?

*close up shot of someone burning Rae in effigy*

Ignatieff: dream winner for NDP
Rae: dream winner for Tories (although only to an extent since Rae has campaigning gifts)
Dion: dream winner for the Bloc

I think the biggest knock against dion is that he was in Chretien and Martins cabinets. Both of the are tainted with corruption, and you don't need had evidence to make insinuation in a general election. dion is a Quebec liberal, and adscam funneled money to Quebec liberals. Dion is clean, but how many are going to have difficulty swallowing that. the liberal party needed renewal, and I don't think dion can provide that. He's just been around too long. That's what Rae and Iggy represented, a new liberal party, and that's why they were the favorites, Dion cannot be seen as anything but the old guard, and that is very dangerous. In the election, expect him to be asked to account for everything that Chretien and Martin did or didn't do, making him run on a ten year old record, instead of against a 1 yr old conservative one is the first and best strategy of the Harper conservatives.

Still, Dion, man you could have knocked me over with a feather.

I don't think anyone in the country doubts Dion's integrity, and he sounds like the definitive anti-politician. For that matter, he's not part of the "old guard" - they all backed either Iggy or Rae, and only came to Dion when Rae was eliminated. This race has seen the defeat of all the various backroom Liberals who never once considered Dion a serious contender for the leadership - and now he has it.

This was a revolt of the rank-and-file, a revolution against the backroom boys/masters of the universe with their giant machines. Rae ran a campaign almost entirely devoid of ideas, Ignatieff was marketed like a brand-name product. I suppose this is what Travers means by "pragmatism". But I think that Kevin has it right. The machines couldn't hide the fact that the products they were marketing were badly flawed.

There was just no way that either Ignatieff or Rae were going to win a federal election. The resistance to Ignatieff and Rae at the Convention was a small taste of what was going to happen in the "real world". If their respective flaws/baggage (which, ironically, were never directly discussed during the campaign) couldn't be overlooked by the Liberal rank-and-file in the hall, they weren't going to be overlooked by their opponents and Canadian voters.

There is something fundamentally stupid about backroom boys who believe that they can simply manufacture political candidates. The election process is there for a purpose, not just as window dressing.

Kennedy had it absolutely right on Friday, rebuilding the Party isn't going to be easy but there's no other way. I'm looking forward to the way that Dion is going to change the political discourse in Canada. I think that politics in our country just got a whole lot more interesting.

Someone on another board lamented that this is going to open up the centre for Stephen Harper. If that happens and Harper moves more to the centre (I am skeptical)then praise the Lord. If Ignatieff had won, Canadian foreign policy would have lurched to the right. Under the circumstances, I am very happy that Dion emerged as the winner--for very pragmatic reasons.


Congrats on the CBA victories.

Hands up all who think Harper has been dying for a chance to move to the centre!! I didn't think so. Actually, it seems to me the Liberals may just have pulled the rug out from under Jack Layton and Elizabeth May. Another way of putting it might be that the environment IS the centre now!

WRT Harper's potential attack ads, we all know how well they worked in the last campaign... which reminds me, whatever happened to those soldiers in the streets that we were promised by Il Duce?

Saskboy:

Thanks. Back at ya.

Well, that didn't take long. Headline in the Globe & Mail:
Dion scores well in early polls
Tallies after the convention show the Liberal party head of the governing Tories

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20061203.wlibspoll1204/BNStory/LiberalBackgrounder/home

"This was a revolt of the rank-and-file, a revolution against the backroom boys/masters of the universe with their giant machines."

I think that's true to some extent, but not entirely. Dion had his own backroom team, including his manager Mark Marissen and other people from Martin's team in BC. And Dion was a Chretien protege. As Kevin, scout and others point out, Dion's victory is essentially the Liberal Party's characteristic conservatism kicking in.

I think the problem with Iggy and Rae's campaigns was that they didn't originally expect to be frontrunners. Iggy was originally hoping to serve in cabinet first, to build up some experience. When that proved not to be possible, Iggy may have expected to be a dark-horse candidate in a race with familiar figures like McKenna, Tobin, Rock or Manley. While he didn't mind becoming the frontrunner instead, he really wasn't ready for it.

Rae likewise shouldn't have expected to become a frontrunning candidate so quickly after joining the party, given his long history in the NDP (albeit that he'd been a Liberal in all but name for some time). Like Iggy, he certainly didn't mind being elevated to a frontrunner role, but in Rae's case, it wasn't so much that he wasn't ready -- more that the Liberals weren't ready for him.

Lulu - Be careful. Any poll taken by the Strategic Counsel is highly suspect without corroboration from a reputable source.

Yo ----

"still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest .. lie - lie - lie.."

The best thing I can think of about Dion is that he started as: "Who is this Dion guy?" went to: "Oh that is Dion." and ended up as: "Arn't those Liberals crafty - to nominate (another)candidate from Quebec who knew nothing about Sponsorship"

I must disagree here with Mr. Dean from Democrat land of the south. When you ARE one of the people you look to represent - you do not have to 'reach out' to them - you are there already. The rest of your constituency is not 'them' sir, it is us, as in we.

So Dion was the Environment Minister in a Liberal government! Excuse me - where can I get work like that? The only worse thing I can think of on a sincere environmentalist's resume is Environment Minister in a Conservative government. The environment may indeed be coming to the forefront of any political agenda - but do not get any warm and fuzzies about Dion for putting it there.

So this minor player in a major scandle (but he did not know anything about it) is now numero uno Liberal going into the next election. I guess he is satisfied with the Harper Accountability Act - I heard nothing at all from him (or anyone else at that convention for that matter) about morals or ethics in public service. This Act seems to be the absolute last word in intergity so long as it does not involve Conservative Party finances.

A pox on Harper's house, a pox on the House of Dion - sometimes I think fondly of Joe Clark.

While I cannot get too excited over the NDP, at least Layton is trying to do what he can with what he has. What I see in Dion is someone that had it, and did nothing with it.

Well done on the CBAs pogge - next year you'll be a killer. Even if, with the quality of the bloggers you have (self excepted), it is hard to see anywhere to improve.

croghan27

a pause here for a congrats on the CBA awards....well done!!!!

The liberals elected a corruption-stained technocrat who will (gulp) make Stephen Harper seem charismatic by comparison. We can see how successful environmentalist based politics have been in Europe by all the electoral success enjoyed by the various Green parties over there. This leadership election was just the next step in the on-going decline of the liberal party and its alienation of the mainstream of Canadian politics.

That Travers column boggled my mind. Except for Zerb, Hebert, and (I'm being very generous here) maybe R. Gwyn on good days, are there any worthwhile columnists at the Star?? What did he mean when he said Dion exhibited "boyish naiveté??"

I think it's safe to say that the only reason Travers said that Iggy and Rae were the "pragmatic" choices, is because that had become an article of conventional wisdom, and unquestioningly parroting the CW comes naturally to him.

Congrats on CBA, pogge. I voted for you.

Congratulations on winning in the 2006 Canadian Blog Awards!

"And most of all, he's a strongly federalist Quebecker. For the last forty years, the Liberals have won elections when led by a federalist Quebecker and lost elections when led by anyone else."

Thank you for noticing this. Everyone (outside Quebec) seems to think that Dion's staunch opposition to the nationalists in Quebec is a liability for him. This just shows the degree to which nationalists have succeeded in their effort to portray themselves the the rest of Canada as the "authentic" Quebecois voice, as opposed to merely one strain of thought. The fact is, Dion's firm stand elicits, at worst, grudging respect- which is a good starting point for a federalist leader in Quebec.

The worst thing you can do in Quebec is appear as a manipulator. Quebecers will bite off the hand of any politician that thinks they own them; this happens to the Bloc and to the PQ just as often as it happens to federalist parties.

I saw a number of internet comments on La Presse's website from outright separatists who compared Dion favourably to the PQ's André Boisclair; they see him as being at least a man of ideas rather than a flashy demagogue.

Dion knows Quebec; and he is tougher than anyone in the ROC knows- he has withstood an intensity of abuse from the nationalist wing of the media that would not be countenanced in any other part of Canada, and emerged with his respect intact.

Dion won't overtake the Bloc any day soon, but he will get the Liberals at least 17-18 seats in Quebec in the next election, and about 25-30 before his time as PM is over. That's more than any other leader could have hoped for.

"I think the problem with Iggy and Rae's campaigns was that they didn't originally expect to be frontrunners." Obscurantist, how does a guy "return" to Canada after thirty years and suddenly become a front runner in a leadership race? It's certainly not by accident. It was a textbook-case of "manufactured consent", to borrow the phrase.

I've been watching the Ignatieff campaign from ground zero (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) since Jean Augustine was muscled aside and he was parachuted into my riding a year ago. I went to the Riding debates. From day one, long before there was a leadership race, Ignatieff was being handled by a machine with professional organizers and paid student campaign-workers. The first debate in a little elementary school in Etobicoke was astonishing--an army of blackberries and audience plants (most, I guarantee, not from the riding) who loudly cheered every innocuous statement made by Ignatieff. It was a wonder to behold. There were a lot of us locals who felt that we were watching the democratic process subverted by the backroom boys (which, when you consider the shenanigans they pulled with the Riding nomination is exactly what it was.)

The resentment was so high that it actually served as a catalyst for a grassroots movement to make sure that the Ignatieff machine was defeated. Did you know that half of the delegates to the Liberal Party Convention from Ignatieff's own riding were Kennedy not Ignatieff people? This wasn't Kennedy's doing, this was a matter of Liberal activists looking for a candidate who was serious about changing the way the Party operates. Those delegates would have died rather than vote for Ignatieff. Nobody will ever talk about this now--it's not polite--but it was there.

Comparing the money, people, organization, and resources of the Ignatieff and Rae campaigns to the Dion campaign is laughable. The losing candidates went one way, the delegates went another. If that's not a revolt of the rank-and-file, I don't know what is.

Ironically, now that he has lost, Ignatieff has a chance to re-invent himself (for the 100th time in his life) and actually make a positive mark in Canadian politics. Losing the handlers and the machine will be good for him. Getting some experience in Parliament will work wonders for his political career. Getting to know his Riding and building some bridges here is important. (Hey, getting to know Canada better will help.) He'll have a chance to shed his image as one of Bush's "useful idiots" on the Iraq war. He will have some time to distance himself from his ambiguous writings on torture and lesser evils. Some real life experience with policy issues will look good on him.

Regarding the Strategic Council polls--Mahigan, I take everything I read with a grain of salt. But there is a very real and critical battle on right now to define Dion. The "can't win/is a disaster in Quebec and the Rest of Canada won't understand what he says" meme was the getting quite a workout in the media. It was refreshing to see something (however it was put together) that challenged what the Tories and NDP hoped would be the emerging conventional wisdom. Somebody out there knows what he/she is doing...note the headline in the Globe & Mail today.

I gotta tell ya--I'm jazzed about the possibilities that Dion brings to federal politics. With Ignatieff and Rae, it was going to be an uphill struggle from the get-go and, frankly, if Ignatieff had won, I would not have voted for the Liberals in the next election. Dion may falter badly, but there is at least the promise that he and Kennedy will energize the grass roots.

It seemed evident to me that, for differing reasons, it was very difficult for Iggy or Rae to attain the requisite 50% plus one. Given Kennedy's lack of presence in Quebec, and that Dion appeared to be a lot of people's number two choice, it's no surprise that he won. That Iggy's failure to win was almost certainly due to his support of the Iraq war, support that unlike many others he has never questioned, is most satisfying.

Very interesting material in Lulu's column above. I'm another who was dreading the prospect of Ignatieff as leader, now obviated, fortunately. I was prepared to accept Rae or Kennedy. Lulu gives interesting accounting of the Etobicoke-Lakeshore parachute ride of Iganatieff engineered by the old cronies. I had read all about it at the time, but the Lulu account has an immediacy that is quite interesting.

Considering that Dion was the only Quebecer in the race, and that the last time the Liberal Party replaced a non-Quebecer with another non-Qeubecer was 1880 why is anyone surprised that Dion won?

'how does a guy "return" to Canada after thirty years and suddenly become a front runner in a leadership race? It's certainly not by accident.'

You're right, there was nothing spontaneous about the 'draft Iggy' movement. I guess it might be overstating things to say that Ignatieff didn't originally expect to win.

But the narrower point is that, as frontrunners go, he was a historical anomaly. (The same applies to Rae, if not to the same extent or in exactly the same way.) Martin, Chretien, and Turner all had extensive experience as federal Liberal cabinet ministers, and even Trudeau had been in cabinet for a few years before winning the leadership.

As you say, Ignatieff (and Rae) had extensive establishment / backroom support, but the irony is that the establishment rallied behind two newcomers (perhaps three, if you count Kennedy) against a (relative) federal party and cabinet veteran. What most observers didn't see, but a few did, was that this gave Dion the advantage of appealing to the instinctive conservatism of most Liberals.

I think your analysis is absolutely correct -- I liked Dion, and distrusted Rae and Iggy, for exactly these reasons. Vision and policy and issues and all that aside, I was looking at only the question of winning an election against Harper. Dion can do it while neither Rae nor Iggy would have.

Yo Lulu:

I like your observations on Iggy's campaign techniques. He left me with a condition similar to Georgie Orwell's "double think". I am insulted that a "dilettante" would come floating into Canadian politics and be taken so seriously. That being said, the other part of the "double think" kicks in and I must suspect he, because of his personal lack of "boots on the ground" must be a front for some heavies in the background.

Your tale of near chicanery at the nomination meeting and of "a machine with professional organizers" fits in with my paranoia.

So he is 1) a newbie to the local political game and is 2) the icon for some long time deep thinkers in the party. This conjecture is totally without any thing more than circumstantial evidence - yet seems to fit the evidence (thank you, very much) as I have seen/heard it.

Whatever, I found the entire situation distasteful.

Lulu's statement is pretty unquestionably true. There were lots of reports that Ignatieff was courted to return to Canada and join the Liberlas with the expectation that the machine would back his run for party leader after Martin stepped down, and those stories were floating around before he actually came to Canada to run for office.

There's nothing remotely unusual about backroom boys going out and recruiting people outside politics to run as star candidates or even for leadership roles. The only part I find confusing is why it continues to be such a popular strategy, even though most of the time the star candidate turns out to be a dud.

The battle is on to define Dion. I don't think "corrupt" is going to work--even the more honest Tories and NDP people are widely admitting that the label is completely inappropriate. Neither can Dion be characterized as a "Tired", "Safe", or "Cautious" choice--he did NOT have the backing of the party establishment and won because the Liberal outsiders (Martha and Gerrard) supported him. The word games continue...

"There's nothing remotely unusual about backroom boys going out and recruiting people outside politics to run as star candidates or even for leadership roles. The only part I find confusing is why it continues to be such a popular strategy, even though most of the time the star candidate turns out to be a dud."

You're dead on, Kevin. The masters of the universe turned Ignatieff into a bubble-boy and made it impossible for him to learn, improve, and get smarter in the course of the campaign. If you have professional applauders in every audience, how do you know what lines work and connect with people and which ones don't? You don't get to hone your message. If you're always spinning the results, you never get any outside sense of performance.

David Smith notwithstanding, Ignatieff had a lot of 40-something and 30-something politicos who wanted to handle this pony to the big leagues in Ottawa. And they were in a hurry. They sensed that Martin was not going to last very much longer and were certain that they could make Ignatieff into the next PM of Canada.

What they didn't have was patience--and maybe he didn't either. One of the unintended consequences of the botched Ignatieff experiment is that it may give all those people circling around Justin Trudeau some pause. The beauty of the parliamentary system--in contrast to the American republic--is that it generally forces political leaders to work their way through the ranks and learn the political skills they need for the job (or, rather, it weeds out those who don't have the skills). The parliamentary system protects us against George Bushes. Justin has no reason to hurry and the people around him should encourage him to go one step at a time. "Remember Ignatieff"--that should become the obligatory bumper sticker for all the backroom boys. And if they don't remember the lesson, most of us surely will.

Yes, a great victory. Lets make sure that politics always stays firmly in the grips of professional politicians. Who wants "dilettantes" with their fancy book-learning and outside-Ottawa perspectives parachuting in and spoiling things? Thank heaven that our parliamentary system protects us from neo-phyte upstarts like former Texas governor, son of a President and grandson of a Senator, and longtime major Republican fund raiser George Bush ever getting a foothold. Yes lets find more former Chretien cabinet ministers so we can be rid of all that "backroom" politics. Its not like the Conservatives will figure out a way to run against "corruption" again. The "honest" Tories will surely put a quick end to that.

Those still engaged in pondering might take a look at the Cement Head of the Cons government,John Baird. At least some of the cons seem to have noted that a number of mindless attack slogans no longer play and they have ventured elsewhere in the reactionaries Hymm book. But not Cement Head. He is still out there in the quarry, busting rocks, and trying to throw a few marked "sponsorship scandal" at Dion.
You just gotta treasure a gang that hopeless.

BJM, if I could figure out your point I might respond to it. Even sarcasm requires some semblance of coherence...

Lule,
Just because you can't figure it out doesn't mean that it lacks coherence but, ok, fair enough. I guess I was trying to say something like:
1_ Painting Dion as some kind of outsider just because he wasn't the favorite is a bit much. Just as painting Iggy as unsuitable because he hasn't spent a career in politics irritates me.
2) You seemed to imply that George Bush was somehow a political naive when he was elected President when just the opposite was true. Bush's power is a product of his political experience which honed and sharpened his political skills and connections.
3)Whatever else Dion is, he does not represent change or a new direction for the pary. "New Liberals same as the old" will by a Tory election refrain. They don't necessarily have to tie corruption around Dion's neck personally. I'm not saying it will work, but it does put all that back into play.

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