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.