Liberals Trying to Figure out What's Gone Wrong

Liberals Trying to Figure out What's Gone Wrong

"Would you like some soup, sir?"

Maybe this is tawdry, just another offering to the morning papers and evening news. Or maybe this is public service. Maybe it's exactly what he should be doing, helping his fellow man, setting an example. Either way, this is politics.

"Would you like a little soup, sir?"

It's 11:20 on the morning of Thanksgiving Sunday. Michael IGNATIEFF, in a white apron, is standing behind the counter at the Shepherds of Good Hope mission in Ottawa, a 20-minute walk from Parliament Hill. Men and women of various ages and in varying states file past. Behind them, three photographers click away. Ignatieff is ladling tomato and squash soup into small bowls. To his right, his wife, the exuberant former publicist Zsuzsanna Zsohar, scoops vegetables.

"Soup's pretty good," he says, "it'll warm you up."

A woman at the door, relentlessly chipper, is assuring each person who enters that the photographers won't be taking pictures of their faces. One man isn't willing to take her word for it and rather forcefully warns the photographers to stand down while he files past. It is the end of perhaps the worst week of Michael Ignatieff's political career so far. His poll numbers have never been worse, his doubters have never been louder. And in the middle of this, he looks uncomfortable.

"Would you like some soup with that, sir?" he asks.

Ignatieff stays for an hour and 14 minutes, until every person is fed. He lingers awhile to talk with the staff and then he has to go. A week later, sitting at a table just off the dining room at STORNOWAY, the leader of the Opposition's official residence, he tries to explain the look on his face. He acknowledges the awkwardness of the cameras. But his answer is long. He wants to explain himself fully.

"What's so puzzling about this RECESSION is that it's largely invisible. But you go to a line like that and you suddenly see that it's not just the usual street people, it's a lot of other people who don't know how they got there, that are shocked that they're there, and I was shocked for them, I guess that that was my reaction," he says. "Shocked is not quite the word, but just, it really hits you. In the same way that in Thunder Bay it hits you. On Thursday morning we were in a lumber mill that's been closed for two years and the superintendent comes down every day just to make sure it hasn't been broken in. Brand-new machinery standing idle. And you see something on the guy's face that really hits you."

He is not yet done on this. "The great thing about politics is you get to see the country raw and unplugged. You get to see things that most other Canadians don't see," he says. "You get to live your country's life. So, I haven't had the greatest autumn, but it's an unforgettable experience and a positive one, in the sense that it deepens your sense of what your country is and what it's going through."

So here is Michael Ignatieff in October 2009. He is putting himself out there, listening, learning and talking it out. He is trying to understand all there is to understand about the country he hopes to lead and he is trying to help that country understand him. He is attempting to lead a party weighed down by history into the future. The questions are numerous, the opinions are plentiful and even LIBERALS are struggling to understand. But the onus remains entirely his.

Three years ago, he appeared smiling on the cover of this magazine beside the question of the moment: "Are you good enough for Michael Ignatieff?" Ten months into his tenure as Liberal leader, the question is now inverted: is Michael Ignatieff ever going to be good enough for us?

It has been a bizarre 10 months - from last winter's prospect of prime minister Stéphane DION to this fall's reinvention of Prime Minister Stephen HARPER as Ringo Starr in a Beatles cover band featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Through the spring, Ignatieff's Liberals were ascendant. By summer, they had stalled. And through the fall, they have wilted. They now sit as much as 15 points behind the ruling Conservatives. "It's very bad," says EKOS pollster Frank Graves. "I don't think it's permanent or indelible or irreparable, but it's very bad."

But why? "It's hard to imagine what it is he's said or done in the last month, other than threatening an election, which I think is a key factor here, to produce such a precipitous decline," Graves says. "He probably didn't deserve the high approval rating he got in the spring, but he probably doesn't deserve to be pilloried to the extent that he is right now. He's gone from being the messiah to the village idiot. It's the same guy. I'm glad it's not me, but I find it almost kind of tragic and comic the way the public looks at these things."

There are any number of explanations.

For one, there is Stephen Harper. The country has seemed to persevere through the recession and him along with it. For months, he has travelled the country handing out billions for bridges and roads. He has ventured overseas and looked as a leader does when he is seen standing beside the likes of Barack Obama. Of late, he has lamented, at every opportunity, an election Michael Ignatieff would seem to seek. And the public has apparently agreed.

For another, obviously, there is Michael Ignatieff. He has regularly befuddled the capital - attempting, for awhile, to make question period a place of substantive inquiry, allowing several Newfoundland MPs to break with the party and cast a symbolic vote of protest against the federal budget, making demands of the Prime Minister, then accepting compromise. In Sudbury last month, Ignatieff turned and announced the Liberal Opposition would from now on oppose, inviting the possibility of an election. Standing down had defined Stéphane Dion's time as leader, so here was Ignatieff standing up. Only now Ignatieff's poll numbers look as bad as Dion's. He's done the opposite and wound up with the same result.

So it regularly seems to be with Ignatieff. At times there is praise, at times there is scorn, but at almost all times there is debate about where he needs to go.

"I want the Michael Ignatieff that we saw in 2005," says Martha Hall Findlay, the Liberal MP for Willowdale. "He came to the convention that we had, he gave a fabulous speech. I want that guy back."

In March 2005, when Ignatieff, not yet a declared candidate for office, addressed the national Liberal convention, he was all potential. He was touted as another TRUDEAU - a dashing figure of intellectual vigour. He spoke then of liberalism, social justice, national unity and education. The subjects and themes were not far from what he touts now. Perhaps something has been lost.

"Frankly, he went through a leadership battle where he talked about some things and pretty much paid a price on them. So I think you get a little gun shy," offers Rob Oliphant, the Liberal MP, friend to Ignatieff and early adherent to his cause. "The pendulum's got to swing back down into the middle where he can be his authentic self. Which is an idea guy. My hope is that he can find his authentic voice. When I listen to him at times, it's not the Michael I've heard before."

Of course, Ignatieff never was Pierre Trudeau. But then Trudeau wasn't quite what we remember him to be either. He nearly lost to the stiff and mockable Robert STANFIELD in 1972 and was momentarily chased into retirement by the baby-faced and mockable Joe CLARK in 1979. The legacy of Liberal leaders is complicated as such; even the sainted were once beleaguered. Jean CHRÉTIEN, the leader for whom Liberals most pine, was miserable once, too. Seven months into his leadership, the Liberals were nearly 10 points back of the NDP.

Chrétien's turning point might have been the arrival of Jean Pelletier, the "velvet executioner," to direct his office. So maybe Ignatieff needs his Pelletier. Or maybe, in fact, he just needs to trust himself. "I think there's been a natural reaction to want to look to advisers to help. And that's a good instinct," says Hall Findlay. "A really good instinct is to say, 'I'm not completely sure, I need some advice.' But the problem with that is that sometimes that can reduce your ability to rely on yourself. And I want him to start relying on himself again."

So maybe he's out-thinking himself. "Michael, his whole life, has depended on his intelligence. He is amazingly intelligent. He's also curious. He's more of a broadcast journalist than a professor. When you're with him, he actually interviews you at times," says Oliphant. "So he's depended on his intelligence and his curiosity. I think he has decided that intelligence isn't really working for him, so he's decided he has to be clever. And the people around him, I think, are trying to be clever. So they have this sort of chess game going on and they expect these certain moves and when the other side doesn't make those moves, they're kind of flummoxed. We just have to be smart. Quit trying to out-clever the other guy, because the other guy is Machivellan, the other guy ... he'll do anything."

Maybe it is simply that the Liberal party, once a dynamic political force, seems now not to stand for anything but its past. "I think the current situation is basically the same it was six months ago, and probably pretty much the same as it was the last few years," says Ken DRYDEN, the Liberal MP. "The public has been saying to us for some time that we want to know what you're about. We want to know how you see the country and what a Liberal government would do. That's what the public is waiting for and we haven't given them that answer yet."

Maybe that's it. The man of ideas has to be just that. He needs to tell us what he'd do, show us his plan. Or not. "The same commentators who will write today that the Liberal party needs to put forward ideas now," says Nova Scotia Liberal MP Scott Brison, "will attack us for being politically naive and bringing them out too early when we do."

Michael Ignatieff is sitting back in a wooden chair, a reporter at the other end of the table. Ignatieff asks what the subject of conversation will be and laughs when informed the next half-hour will have mostly to do with him. A week after the worst week of his political career, the thinker is asked, once more, to think about himself and what he must do now.

Is he, for instance, enjoying himself? "I'd be lying to you if I said I enjoyed it every day of the week," he says. "It's been the most challenging thing I've ever tried to do. When it's going well, the most fun. It's a team, you feel you're part of a team and people believe in you and we're pushing toward the same goal, which is a good, compassionate, creative, centre-of-the-road government that really does good things for Canada. When it doesn't go well, you have to take responsibility."

Does he feel like he is being himself at this point? "Yes. But I think that I'm happiest when I'm more unplugged. That makes my guys a little anxious, but I'm happier when I'm unplugged," he says, smiling. "I think there's a perception that I've got overly cautious. I hope what I'm doing is getting more precise. There's quite a lot out there that, in a weird way, I've had to fight for the right to be heard."

He references here the television ads Stephen Harper's side has run, apparently to great effect, against him. " 'He's just visiting. He's only in it for himself.' I've had to fight to kind of say, 'Wait a minute, I'm a Canadian, I'm here to stay and here's what I've got to say.' "

Is he trying to be too clever? "If I'm trying to outsmart Mr. Harper, I'm not doing the world's greatest job, let's be clear about it," he laughs. "This is a business that teaches you humility in spades."

Maybe this is the problem right here. Maybe he's too willing to entertain these questions, too quick to be introspective and self-effacing. Maybe he should be more precise.

He speaks in his own defence. Liberal party membership, he says, has tripled. Reinvigorated fundraising has pulled the party out of debt. He understands, it seems, the primary complaint - that he has not put enough to his name, that Canadians want ideas - and much of the half-hour is filled with his vision for the country and all of the things he says he's been talking about in speeches in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, if only anyone would listen. He talks about child care and the paramount importance of education. He speaks of India and China and the need to realign the Canadian economy. We must decrease, he says, our dependence on fossil fuels. We must focus on energy efficiency. We need to think seriously about productivity and interprovincial energy sharing.

All of which may be noble notions, but lack the specificity now demanded. He promises more, at some point. "I got some of the things out there," he says. "There'll be more and we'll tie it up in a big bow and hand it to Canadians and say, 'There you are.' "

The last year has blurred the traditional partisan divide, so a new distinction must be made. Stephen Harper, he seems to say, is a man of today, he is a man of tomorrow. "Mr. Harper, after nearly destroying his government in December 2008, basically moved into the Liberal house. But there's no vision, absolutely no vision of where we're going to be in five, 10 years. I've talked a lot about 2017 because it's a way of focusing the mind on the question that actually bothers Canadians. The thing I pick up is relief that civilization as we know it didn't end, but the anxiety that remains for Canadians is what did we get for $56 billion, how are we going to dig ourselves out of it, and if the American market is going to be flat for three, four, five years, how do we make our living in this world?"

Discussion drifts back at several points to that Thanksgiving Sunday and those people and that soup. It was a photo op, and it was a matter of public service. But maybe it mattered for other reasons altogether. Maybe it was part of Michael Ignatieff understanding for himself, and explaining to everyone else, why he's in this game.

"I don't pretend to have all the answers. I'm still learning. And there are three or four other pieces that have to be there before Canadians start to think, 'Yeah, well, he's at least thinking about our future,' " he says, again casting forward. "He's not up there at 50,000 feet, he's trying to address the anxieties and anguish that I saw in that food line, that I see in the supervisor's face. And you have to make that connection. And it's not enough to just have lots of ideas, lots of policies. People have got to feel, 'That guy, he's in my corner. He's a little funny, he's got a funny name, he's been outside the country, but he's in my corner.' I mean, that's the connection you have to make. It's very visceral. And I feel I make the connection constantly. I don't think I'm dreaming."

Maclean's November 2, 2009