On Monday, Michael Ignatieff may well make history - but not in a good way. He could be leading the Liberal Party to a historic defeat. For the first time since 1867, it's possible the Liberals will form neither the government nor the official opposition.
The Liberals won't be routed as badly as the Progressive Conservatives were in 1993, when, under the hapless Kim Campbell, they were reduced to two seats. Still, it could be an epic humiliation. The Liberals have never won less than 22.67 per cent of the popular vote (and that was in 1867), but this time they might. This election probably will mark the end of Mr. Ignatieff's political career, and will surely trigger another round of soul-searching in a party that still can't grasp why Canadians have rejected it.
Politics is cruel. And Mr. Ignatieff's fundamental problem is that he can't connect. The ability to connect with people is not essential to success in politics, but it helps a lot. Like musicality, it's something you either have or you don't. If you don't, you can take lessons all your life, but you'll never be able to make decent music.
Jean Chrétien's ability to connect was phenomenal. So was Bill Clinton's. David Crombie had it, and so did Frank McKenna. They could lock their eyes on you and make you think - if only for 10 seconds - that you were the most important person in the room. They inspired their supporters to run through rings of fire on their behalf.
The Liberals just can't find a leader who connects. Paul Martin was no good at it, and Stéphane Dion was a disaster. They tried to build those skills in Iggy. They sent him on a road trip to talk to ordinary Canadians. He became quite good at it. During this campaign, he's spoken constantly about the inspiration he's drawn from the ordinary Canadians he's met - the truck driver in a cowboy hat in Sudbury, the young mom in Newfoundland who trained to be a heavy equipment operator. But they didn't draw inspiration from him. "I don't trust that guy," people say to me. They don't trust Stephen Harper, either. But that's not good enough.
Politics isn't fair. Mr. Harper can't connect, either. In fact, he's inspired a dislike so visceral that large parts of the electorate mistake him for Lord Voldemort. That helps explain the remarkable ascendancy of Jack Layton, the Great Connector. People may not like the NDP, but at least Smilin' Jack is a nice guy who sounds credible.
Who knows what Canadians will wake up to on Tuesday? Judging by the polls, it seems the voters want roughly the same thing they voted for last time and the time before - a Conservative minority. But the Conservatives could pick up seats even if they can't move the needle on the popular vote. The fracture on the left might help them. So could their skills at micro-targeting, where they focus on key ridings they think they can take away from other parties. They haven't run a national campaign, and never planned to.
Through much of the campaign, the Liberals have been in denial, blaming everyone but themselves. They blame the Conservative attack ads and even the electorate. Many liberal intellectuals believe Mr. Harper has mastered the insidious art of mind control. (As one of them wrote in the Toronto Star, "The 'Harperization' of our minds has already kicked in.") Others believe the Liberals' main problem is that Mr. Harper appeals to stupid people. But my small-l liberal friends are pinning the blame on Iggy. "Why can't he get his message across?" they complain.
This election always was a long shot for Mr. Ignatieff. Times are relatively good, but people are still anxious. Whenever Canadians are asked what's more important to them - the economy, or ethics in government - the economy wins by a wide margin. People dislike Mr. Harper, but enough view him as a steady hand. They don't see Mr. Ignatieff as a leader. The only reason the Liberals pulled the plug on the Conservatives was that they didn't think their chances were going to improve any time soon. Like the Tories in 1993, they figured the worst they'd finish was a decent second.
After 1993, the right was shattered. It spent a decade in the wilderness. Now it's the Liberals' turn. Their first problem is who'll lead them now. (Bob Rae? I don't think so.) A party so far out of power has a tough time attracting talent. A lot of Liberals seem to think their best hope is that Justin Trudeau will hurry and grow up.
Their more fundamental problem is that their world view is trapped in amber. Liberals talk as if the global financial meltdown never happened. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that the welfare state constructed after the Second World War can't be sustained without major change. Every Western nation is locked in a struggle to adjust to a world in which government can no longer satisfy the demands of the old entitlement state. Even Canada isn't exempt. The challenge of the next generation won't be to create new entitlements, but to fund the most essential ones that already exist.
Michael Ignatieff came back to Canada with the most honourable of motives - to serve his country. But he's the wrong man, in the wrong party, at the wrong time. That's not his fault. It's just politics.
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