Michael Ignatieff: Is he too ambitious to become Canada's prime minister?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 29 2011 3:15 PM

Worthwhile Canadian Candidate

Michael Ignatieff may want to be prime minister too much for Canadians to give it to him.

Michael Ignatieff. Click image to expand.
Will Michael Ignatieff's ambitious nature turn voters against him?

In 2005, Michael Ignatieff returned home to Canada with a gilded résumé. In the 36 years since he'd left Toronto, he had become one of the world's leading public intellectuals: reporting extensively on human rights issues for the BBC and the New York Times; writing more than a dozen books, one of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; and teaching at Harvard, where he'd helped codify the case for humanitarian intervention that President Obama invoked to justify bombing Libya. He seemed eminently qualified for his new chosen field—politics—and his sights were fixed on Canada's top job.

In 2006, Ignatieff was duly elected to Parliament, and three years later he became leader of the Liberal Party. Now he is finishing up his first election campaign at the helm—and he's all but certain to get trounced. Canadians' minds appear to have been made up from the start: The ambitious Mr. Ignatieff needed a comeuppance. In Canada, you can be disqualified from leadership for wanting it too much.

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The Liberals are on track to finish third in Monday's vote, a once-unthinkable result for a centrist party that ruled Canada for much of the 20th century. The opposition forced this election despite solid public support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government, and Harper has mounted a strong front-runner's campaign, portraying himself as a kind of Prime Minister Dad whose tax cuts and steady hand have brought about Morning in Canada. (Credit belongs more to longstanding financial regulations and Alberta's oil reserves, but dead bankers and plankton don't talk.)

Ignatieff has campaigned well as a rookie. He has been gregarious on the hustings, a passable debater, and a stellar off-the-cuff stump speaker. But his platform of better education and health care has failed to reach moderate voters, and his critique that the Conservatives are an undemocratic lot hasn't snared progressives. Worse, he has consistently polled below 20 percent on leadership measures like trust, competence, and vision.

This humbling was probably inevitable, thanks in part to the Conservatives' Rovesque genius for defining opponents in the public mind. In the first two of the four elections Canada has held since 2004, they successfully framed Liberal Paul Martin, who as finance minister had legendarily slain Canada's deficit, as a corrupt, weak-kneed nincompoop. In the third, their "Not a leader" messaging helped cast a geeky law professor, Stéphane Dion, as a foolhardy eco-radical bent on carbon-taxing the country's economy into oblivion. This time, they've turned Ignatieff's resumé into a liability by exploiting one of Canadians' deepest cultural prejudices: their suspicion of ambition.

The Conservative push to define Ignatieff as an un-Canadian striver hit full stride in 2009, less than a month after he was confirmed as Liberal leader. In one attack ad, he was shown in his talking-head days, saying he wished Canada's U.N. peacekeeping record was "a little better," to which the narrator replied sarcastically: "Yes, if only we could all be a little better, just like Michael."

In another ad, Ignatieff was quoted referring to himself as "horribly arrogant" and a "cosmopolitan." "He's not in it for you," the narrator concluded. "He's just in it for himself. It's the only reason he's back. Michael Ignatieff: just visiting." The ads directed Canadians to the website ignatieff.me—the Montenegrin domain an ironic slap, given his years reporting on the Balkan wars—and set the tone for two years of Ignatieff-as-arriviste frothing from across the political spectrum. Absent a "birther" movement, Canada had itself a " 'broader" movement.

By the time of the current campaign, the Conservatives had only to riff on the theme, ending even ads on taxation policy with the tagline "Ignatieff. He Didn't Come Back for You." Missing the point spectacularly, Liberal supporters parried by calling the tactic a slight against the 2 million to 3 million Canadians who live and work abroad. Esteemed columnists and bitter expats took up the case, accusing the Conservatives of betraying Canada's image as a multicultural, internationally engaged nation.

But the ads weren't really appealing to Canadian parochialism. If that had been the Conservatives' aim, they'd have hammered Ignatieff for being out of touch. They were after his motivations. Ignatieff's sin wasn't that he'd left—it was that he was too big for his sensible denim britches.

It's a truism in Canada that the country's political culture follows from its rural roots. The compromises that forged the country beginning with Confederation in 1867 also led to a parliamentary system that favors sparsely populated provinces like Saskatchewan. Such is the skew that Harper's Conservatives won minority governments in the past three elections without taking a single seat in the country's three largest cities. Their base of support in outlying areas—Western and rural Canada, plus the suburbs—was enough.

No one has captured the culture of suspicion toward Ignatieff types in the Canadian hinterlands quite so well as Alice Munro. In her second book, Lives of Girls and Women, her alter ego, Del, watches two aunts mock their neighbor's new husband at an introductory dinner:

"Oh, the law-yer!" cried Aunt Elspeth elegantly, and leaning across the table inquired, "Have you always—been interested—in country life?" After their marvelous courtesy to him I found this faintly chilling; it was a warning. Didn't he think he was somebody! That was their final condemnation, lightly said. He thinks he's somebody. Don't they think they're somebody. Pretensions were everywhere.

Not that they were against ability. They acknowledged it in their own family, our family. But it seemed the thing to do was keep it more or less a secret. Ambition was what they were alarmed by, for to be ambitious was to court failure and to risk making a fool of oneself.

The aunts then brag about their talented brother, who they claim could have sat in the province's Cabinet. "Didn't he get elected?" Del asks. "Don't be silly, he never ran," Aunt Elspeth replies.

Under the Conservative barrage, Ignatieff no doubt often wished he hadn't either. But there's wisdom, too, in the fears of small towns. A mistrust of ambition holds a country to one war instead of two or three; it keeps national banks from gorging on mortgage-backed securities. And it helps sort out the leaders from the carpetbaggers.

The Conservatives were smart to smear Ignatieff as the latter, but whether they were right remains to be seen. Examples of his vanity abound, to be sure—this is a man who once posed, in a raffish pink suit, for the cover of GQ's U.K. edition. And he did make a fool of himself as one of the leading thinkers to support the Iraq War. Yet his otherwise illustrious international career was grounded in the values of the country he left behind in 1969. One of the downsides to shying away from ambition is that you can also be quick to abandon your ideals—and back then, Canada prided itself on being internationally oriented, morally engaged, and spiritually generous. The international community has found Harper's Canada to have these qualities in shorter supply.

Only recently, however, did Liberal ads start forcefully drawing these connections for the Canadian public. To Ignatieff's credit, he was more concerned the past two years with behaving like a candidate for small-town mayor. After becoming Liberal leader, he rapped on more doors, waved from more busses, and convened more town halls than his opponents (prompting this attack ad from the leftist NDP). He tried extremely hard to convince wary Canadians that he wants to work for them, and that all the congratulations in Cambridge couldn't have kept him from coming back.

Monday's results may tell Ignatieff that his failure to connect with Canadians has been total. It's possible he'll decide to step down as Liberal leader, or that his party will turf him. There's also an outside chance he'll become prime minister anyway, if the Liberals do better than expected and the Conservatives get another minority but fail to win the confidence of the House. If he leaves politics, his legacy will be "Michael Ignatieff: just visiting." If he becomes prime minister without winning an election—a legitimate maneuver, but one many Canadians would find unsavory—it will be "Michael Ignatieff: just in it for himself."

He'd do better to keep knocking on doors, if he can. He may not be facing total rejection, so much as the Aunt Elspeth test. Have you always—been interested—in country life? If Ignatieff wants Canadians to believe the answer is yes, he'll fight to stick around. We sweat, Munro writes, for our pretensions.

Jeremy Keehn is a former senior editor at The Walrus magazine in Toronto. He now works in New York.

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