Michael Ignatieff's big problem is that he can't fake sincerity. Canadians know their political leaders rarely mean exactly what they say, but we expect them to sound as if they mean it. It may have been Marx who first said that if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. Groucho knew these things. But Iggy is no Marxist, alas for him. When he says it's principle, not opportunism, that has led him to plunge the country into an election not a single human being outside the political world wants, you feel almost sorry for him that he can't carry it off. Almost.
Of course, this has been a problem for him since he jumped into politics, which makes you feel rather less sorry for him. Remember all his self-declared moments of pride? Declaring his candidacy was the proudest moment of his life. Winning the nomination was the proudest moment of his life, even though he likely violated the party's constitution in the process. Winning the election was the proudest moment of his life. Losing to Stéphane Dion - okay, not such a proud moment.
But as I have generously advised him several times already, get some advisers who can tell you when you're getting it all wrong. If it's the proudest moment of your life every time you tie your shoelaces, you soon become the boy who cried wolf (if I might mix a metaphor). Any time you insist you're doing something for principle not self-interest, everyone knows it's not out of principle. That's just life in the political sphere. But aha! There's the Iggy problem. He still knows precious little about the political game. He needs advisers. Unless, that is, he has advisers. In that case, Sir, you need new advisers-- yesterday.
Stephen Harper is pretty good at faking sincerity, though with him it's frighteningly possible that he really believes some of his more despicable statements. I have at hand a leaflet that arrived in my mailbox courtesy of "Government Caucus Services" in Ottawa. That means it was paid for out of public funds, in order to persuade gullible Canadians that 80 per cent of the government's Economic Action Plan was "already being implemented in communities like ours across the country." Who "our community" might be is a different story. But if words mean anything - and in politics they don't necessarily - it's just not true. This has been pointed out and documented repeatedly, with absolutely no change in Conservative propaganda. Not only won't Conservative propagandists be deterred by facts, they won't be deterred even when exposed and discredited. These people are sincerely determined to say whatever they think will help them and that they can get away with.
But credit where credit is due, I always say. Harper almost always sounds as if he means what's he's saying, however preposterous it is. So does Jason Kenney; Kenney is really a past master at faking sincerity in a big way. You almost feel sorry for him for a having to endure the Liberal outrages he feels he must refute.
Peter van Loan and John Baird are in a different category. Van Loan is so mean-spirited you can't help wishing him poorly; even Conservative partisans shun him.
Baird, on the other hand, is so over-the-top, so outrageous himself, that only the Conservative base can take it seriously. And that's exactly Baird's role, especially in the House. Unlike Ignatieff, he doesn't even pretend to be speaking to a majority of Canadians, and unlike Ignatieff, he doesn't have to. He gets the backbench shrieking with adolescent delight and transmits the spin line of the day that others are to use. So he doesn't even try to fake sincerity. But the base, when they repeat the lines he gives them, are really, really sincere because they believe their own propaganda. In fact, to them it's not propaganda at all; it's just the facts, Ma'am.
Of course, Baird pays a real price for his role. His shtick undermines his attempts to be taken seriously when he hands out goodies across the country swearing they have nothing to do with politics, let alone elections. When Baird materializes, eyes automatically roll.
Baird plays a role similar to America's famed media reactionaries. Watching Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Beck and the others - be afraid, they are many - strut their stuff and make their absolutely nutty accusations against Obama and liberalism, you know that they know that much of what they peddle is grossly and deliberately exaggerated, not to say totally fabricated. But their many adoring fans, demonstrating the stunning ignorance that characterizes the world of American conservatism, buy every vicious word hook, line and sinker.
That's Ignatieff's problem - no meaningful Liberal base that will automatically believe he's sincere or won't care if he's not. All Canadian parties today have a relatively small base of dependable voters. Liberals still seem oblivious to this fact, though the evidence is obvious and unmistakable. "Mr. Harper, your days are numbered," Ignatieff announces with remarkable hubris. The line was so risible that you couldn't help thinking the guy just can't fake sincerity. But think of the alternative interpretation: He may have believed it.
Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and author of The Betrayal of Africa