First impressions of Michael Ignatieff as Liberal leader

Saturday, February 28, 2009

I have to admit I'm more impressed with Ignatieff than I thought I would be. So far he seems to be doing a good job as leader of the party, and here's why:

1) Grumbling within the party has virtually disappeared. It always surfaced now and then with Dion but Ignatieff seems to be much better at keeping the party united. The party probably has Dion to thank for this, actually, as without his disastrous leadership there wouldn't have been so much of a desire for anybody to replace him, and given that Ignatieff almost won the leadership during the last convention anyway while Dion kind of snuck in due to voting rules and a desire for a moderate leader, there were quite a few within the party that never really regarded him as the legitimate leader in the first place.
2) Ignatieff seems to know how to speak to the West. This seems to be his international experience showing itself, as he doesn't come across as a person that favours one region over another, and with that favoratism usually comes blame (real or implied), which is what can drive a lot of people to vote for the other party. This article is one of many that I've seen over the past few days on speeches he's given in the West, and he seems to understand the importance of energy in that part of the country and doesn't want to do anything to alienate the region. Here's what he said today:

The trip west was Ignatieff's second in as many weeks. With an eye on the next election, Ignatieff is trying to distance himself as a leader from his party's historic failings in the region.

"God knows this party has made mistakes out in the Western Canada and I know them," Ignatieff said in Regina several weeks ago.

He also had words for former Liberal leader Stephane Dion's Green Shift plan, which was nearly as unpopular in the west as Pierre Trudeau's national energy program.

"I think you can't win elections if you are adding to the input costs of a farmer . . . or a trucker," Ignatieff said in a news conference in Edmonton Friday. "You got to work with the grain of Canadians and not against them."

"I think we learned a lesson in the last election."

But Ignatieff emphasized the Liberals are not backtracking on the environment agenda.

"Our goal is very simple -- to reduce the amount of energy input into everything we do," he said.

I wrote yesterday that Ignatieff might be able to win the next election without having to exert all that much effort, if the country doesn't see him as trying to grab power (as was the case with the coalition) and if the country gets a bit bored with Harper. I think the overall impression of the political situation right now is that 1) The Conservatives aren't the most beloved party at the moment but they won the election as a minority so let them continue to govern for the time being; 2) If the Liberals show signs that they've learned from their past election defeats then they'll probably be given another chance.

What will probably be Ignatieff's greatest challenge in the next election (whenever it is) will be keeping the so-called troops in line. Voters don't like melodrama in their politicians, and if it looks like Liberal Party candidates are too eagerly chomping at the bit or too inclined to try to demonize the Conservative Party as opposed to presenting their own vision for the country, they'll be punished again. Ignatieff is probably going to have to draft up a list of things for candidates not to say, such as don't try to make comparisons to George Bush and the Conservatives anymore (Bush is long gone and those comparisons don't work anyway), don't call them neo-cons or fascists, don't call them racist, don't say anything that makes it look like you are taking votes for granted, and so on.

Oh, and for Ignatieff himself: no mentioning Barack Obama too much. Though they apparently have a number of mutual friends, people don't really appreciate trying to ride on another person's coattails. I think Ignatieff's smart enough to avoid this though.


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