Thursday, May 20, 2010

The trouble with Iggy


The Conservatives should be in a meltdown. Prorogation of Parliament, stonewalling on the Afghan detainee issue, attacks on women's groups, gays, and the Guergis Jaffer affair cumulatively should be having some effect on their support, no? Yet the latest poll results showing the Liberals at just 21% begs the question: what's wrong with Michael Ignatieff that he can't translate this into political gain?

I met Mr Ignatieff at a candidate's meet and greet during the last election. The first thing that struck me is that he's a very tall man, I'd say about 6'4". The other was how well he worked the room, stopping and chatting with everyone there. I confess this was a bit of a surprise to me, and points out a certain pre-conceived notion I had about him that he's not really a politician. That can be a liability, or in these days of cynicism over politics, it could be turned to a strength. But no one seems able to capitalize on this, least of all the man himself.

His reputation as an intellectual leads to further assumptions that he is cold and rational, but when it was my turn to speak to him I found this not to be the case. My question touched on something that he seemed to be genuinely passionate about, the need for the Liberal Party to reclaim the center, and to stop allowing the CPC to frame them as lefties. That's not going too well, as any read through the comments on the G&M website will prove. Like it or not, the debate has become polarized, with the CPC on the right, and the Liberals on the left. I wonder if this insistence on taking the center path might not be responsible for the perception that the Liberals stand for nothing and everything. Or perhaps it's more than mere perceptions. Perhaps this is why the party is so devoid of any clear platform. They appear to be running scared, waiting to react, but not too much lest they force an election, to Conservative action. Everyone should know by now that if you want to be the one framing the issues, you have to be first and you have to be loudest.

Ignatieff is the second Liberal party leader in a row who has been saddled with the label of intellectual. This plays into many people's inherent dislike of those they consider to be smarter than they are. It certainly plays well with both hard and soft conservatives, who distrust the "intellectual elite" who they fear hold them in contempt.

And yet Harper is not dissimilar. He's an "egghead" and has been all his life. He's that dweeby guy in highschool who joins the Chess Club and the Bible Club. He actually appeared on uber-geeky Canadian quiz show Reach for the Top. He has never had a "real" job for any period of time.

The difference is that Harper has managed to re-brand himself. He has hidden his giant ego and famously short temper under a speaking manner that is even and calm. He has hidden his intellectualism under cover of blue sweaters, Tim Horton's, hockey dad persona and tough-talking champion of Canada on the world stage.

Ignatieff meanwhile has not attempted any sort of re-branding. The many years he spent in England and the US could be put to some sort of advantage, encapsulated as "I know our two greatest allies from the inside. I have insights that we as a country can use". Instead, it seems that he fears to open the issue and the possible accusations that he is a "parachute" candidate -- a guy who came home after 30 something years away, expecting to be given the top job in the land. It's all about framing.

There are voters who follow politics closely. Then, there is the vast majority that doesn't. For most, an overall impression of the leader of the party is the deciding factor. I know from my own experience that this is the case. I had little grasp of the real issues. when I hit the age of majority. At the time the US was in an election campaign: Kennedy vs Nixon. I was "for" Kennedy because he was young and good-looking while Nixon was old, kinda greasy-looking and seemed even then to be hiding something.

Yes Virginia, it IS a popularity contest. I also remember being really jealous that the US had Kennedy while we were stuck with a bunch of boring old men. No wonder Trudeau swept in by a landslide. He was our Kennedy.

My theory, and I'm sure it's not new, is that when people choose the leader of a country, they are choosing their country's avatar. Just as we pick online avatars that are heroic idealized versions of ourselves, so too do we select the leaders of our country. We want someone who will represent Canada favourably on the world stage, who won't embarrass us, or appear weak. Ergo Stephane Dion was doomed from the get-go. We also want someone who is like us, without the flaws. Like us, not way smarter than us. Thus the repeated failures of intellectuals to gain traction in the public sphere: Adelai Stevenson, John Kerry, Stephane Dion.

Harper shed his intellectual image. Ignatieff must do the same or he'll never get anywhere in politics. I suggest he start with recognizing what country he's in now -- perhaps some photo ops canoeing in the wilderness a la Trudeau. I also suggest he take a public, visible interest in hockey. I suggest he set up meetings with women's groups. I suggest he appeal to the more reasonable mainstream churches of this country, and together they should deplore the "end of days" evangelical movement, and show it for what it is: that they've given up on saving our planet and are just waiting for their VIP trip to heaven.

Get on the ball Mr Ignatieff or your reign will be short indeed.
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