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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff mingles with luncheon guests before laying out his economic vision for Canada to the Toronto Board of Trade on Sept. 21, 2009. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff mingles with luncheon guests before laying out his economic vision for Canada to the Toronto Board of Trade on Sept. 21, 2009. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

Rex Murphy

Why Ignatieff muddles and befuddles us Add to ...

What's the matter with Michael Ignatieff?

He has a great family name - diplomat father, philosopher (George Grant) uncle, and a whole kite tail of Russian aristocrats generations back. He was drafted to return to Canada on the strength of his accomplishments as a writer, journalist and teacher. And, in the very brief time since, he has finessed the leadership of the Liberal Party away from a very formidable array of politicians who thought to succeed Jean Chrétien.

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Considering the handicaps he faced - time away from the country being the most serious - this is a stroke of considerable brilliance.

His greatest disadvantage, however, carries an equal weight of advantage. He is truly fresh on the scene; he carries none of the clammy odours of past scandals and feuds. He is not parochial, projects frequently some notion of Canada as a "world player." These are sentiments many Canadians find very compelling.

So, in sum, what have we here? A fresh, intelligent leader, untainted by association with the Liberal Party's more egregious sins - the wreckage of sponsorship, lingering factionalism from the Martin-Chrétien duel - with a record of high career achievement in the competitive worlds of U.S. and British journalism and academia.

This man should be rocketing upward in every poll, and the party he leads, a vote-vacuuming miracle for the better part of a century, should be randy with confidence over the next election, whenever it comes.

But he's not, not at all. And his party is lamely trailing, in the midst of a recession, the dour, somewhat accident-prone, unexciting Harper Conservatives. This party has just been rescued by the Layton-Harper alliance from being forced to the polls by its own leader. As things stand, the Liberals almost surely would have lost.

What is the matter with Michael Ignatieff that this is so? What's missing from the portrait? Why, with so fresh and unspotted a leader, do the Liberals lack energy, borrow what little drama they possess from the tired, sham outrages of Question Period? It's difficult to pinpoint. It's not because of the "just-visiting" ads. They speak more to the narrowness of his opponents than to the flaws of their target. Nor has he been seriously spattered by cherry-picked quotations from some of his writings - his musings on the torture debate, for example - or his inclination toward the first person plural, the "we" in his writings, while tenured in America. They're predictable "hit points" but they don't really resonate. It isn't any perceptible difficulties (I leave the spat over Quebec nominations out of the mix for now) with his caucus.

Manner is one part of the answer. He is cocky and uncertain almost simultaneously, aggressive and challenging one moment, hesitant and even confusing in his message the next. That message, what there is of it, is a muddle. He casts the word "vision" around like it's a talisman, but speaks in the mushy platitudes of a high school valedictorian. He seems stranded between the two models of successful Liberal leadership, caught between the saloon and the salon. He cannot, by nature, mimic Jean Chrétien's carefully crafted populist style. Neither does he have the electricity and presence of Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau's braininess was sexy, Mr. Ignatieff's you merely gather from the résumé.

Mr. Trudeau wowed on contact. You're supposed to be impressed by Mr. Ignatieff. That dreadful feeble Ignatieff-before-the-trees ad, with its anodyne "we can do better" slogan, is breathtakingly pointless. It radiates the very absence of message or point that presumably it was constructed to dispel. And here we come to the centre of what's the matter.

What has he to say to Canadians? Why did he come home? How is a Canada with Michael Ignatieff as its leader a better, different Canada than one without him? What's special, distinct and intrinsic to his personality and style that adds something to the country he proposes to lead? Mr. Ignatieff has not only not answered these most basic questions. He signals by style and statement that he hasn't worked out the answers for himself, not to speak of his fellow citizens.

What we have so far from him is a credentials candidate, a list of qualifications, all neatly typed on very fine quality paper. On the page, he's great. He'd make the perfect university president. But where is the touch of style and manner, the evidence of real passion infusing new ideas, that connects him to, or makes him a vessel for, the shared aspirations of an entire people? Where's the leader quality?

Mr. Ignatieff has been in Canadian politics for nearly three years, and in a very important way he's no closer to demonstrating what he has to add, as leader, potential prime minister, to our common Canadian experience than the first day some very smart people asked him to come home.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup .

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