To look at Canadian history in the broad sweep is to see alternating patterns of visionary (so-called) and grinding leadership.
The first period featured the towering, expansively minded national figures of John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. There followed more plodding but sometimes effective men - Robert Borden, R.B. Bennett, Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent. Then came a series of prime ministers who saw themselves as castle builders. John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney cowered at the thought of being custodians.
For the past two decades, the country has seen a return of the grinders. Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper put their stock in stability and incrementalism. Not for them the hyperbole of other PMs, or even presidents such as Lyndon Johnson, who ventured to proclaim in 1964: "These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem."
One can debate which set of leaders has been better for this country - the plodders or the prophets. Big thinkers sometimes have blinkers. Mr. Diefenbaker set passions ablaze with his unhinged biblical incantations of 1958 that won him a record 208 seats. People strained to touch his coat. But he expired quickly. Mr. Trudeau dragged Canada out of its cultural backwater with his magnetic intellectual appeal. But expectations were too grand to be fulfilled. "Whatever happened to your Just Society?" a protester once complained to him. "Ask Jesus Christ," Mr.Trudeau shot back. "He promised it first."
Striking about today's dynamic is less the run of the plodders than the degree of stagnation. There have been minority governments since 2004. For the past five years, the standings and the polls have barely changed. Governance has been given over to around-the-clock political infighting. No leader looks boldly to the future. We talk about the fiscal deficit. A bigger problem is the inspirational deficit, and it's seldom been so high.
This is the void that Michael Ignatieff, while running a good campaign in certain respects, has been unable to fill. He hasn't offered an alternative platform and vision alluring enough to light the imagination. He needed the advice that Henry Kissinger, then an academic, offered to campaigners for John Kennedy in his run against Richard Nixon in 1960: "We need someone who will bring about a big jump - not just an improvement of existing tendencies. … If all Kennedy does is to argue that he can manipulate the status quo better than Nixon, he is lost."
With his recent exhortations to "Rise up, Canada," the Liberal Leader seems to be getting it. He is showing passion, a feel for the country, a sense of its future. But it's probably too late. Interviewing him before the campaign began, I was struck by his difficulty in laying out an inspiring vision of Canada. A person of his background, a man of letters, a seasoned communicator, should feast on such a question. But he finally settled on something about equality of opportunity. Hardly invigorating.
Mr. Ignatieff is advised by a lot of smart but cautious former Chrétien types, and his platform shows it. It's full of pragmatic, old-time Liberal stuff. Didn't he realize he was starting so far behind?
After being bested by an impressive Stephen Harper in the English-language debate, Mr. Ignatieff's last-ditch effort is in resorting to what the Harper Conservatives have used for years - attack ads built on the politics of fear. That the Harper operatives, specialists in below-the-belt politics, are aghast at these ads and demanding they be pulled is hypocrisy of the highest order.
The Conservative campaign has offered the Liberals ample opportunity. Tory promises that won't take effect for four years - and only if the budget is balanced - are hardly compelling. The campaign also has featured an unusual number of blunders. But in the absence of a more ambitious Liberal alternative, the effort appears to be enough to win, ensuring the continuance of the era of the grinders.