Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Cat’s Out of the Bag

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Strategic Planning (Tuesday March 28, 2006 at 12:22 am)

Warren Kinsella doesn’t think much of Michael Ignatieff as a potential leader for Canada’s Liberals.

Mr. Kinsella has been known for theatrics, but his beef with Ignatieff, like his own approach to politics, runs deeper.

Kinsella objects to the would-be-leader’s ideology, as can be discerned from his academic work, and his poor performance in dealing with opposition early in his political career.

More than anything else, Kinsella points out how easily a few choice lines on controversial subjects can snowball into serious problems. And having done just that to Stockwell Day, Kinsella should know what it takes to take someone down with a few well-selected quotes.

But doesn’t it matter, you might think to ask, what those quotes say?

The hard line on torture proposed by Ignatieff might be anathema to many true Liberals, but then, does the leader need to appeal to those who already support his party, or to those whose support the party has yet to win? It’s clear that some positions can alienate traditional supporters. What isn’t clear is whether Ignatieff’s hawkish stance on international affairs would alienate more traditional Liberal voters than it would bring in in new supporters. What’s more, the Conservatives can’t make much headway in attacking a hawk — the only party with the credentials and position to attack Ignatieff would be the NDP; and it’s uncertain that they can attract many Liberal supporters, who have lately become much less tolerant of the NDP’s fiscal policies.

The question to ask, then, to evaluate Ignatieff based on his academic writing, is whether its content is likely to be successful politically, and not whether Liberals like it. Without trying to answer that question, you can’t tell whether Ignatieff’s policies would help or hinder the party. It’s just not clear that Ignatieff’s past work is the political millstone Mr. Kinsella thinks it is.

But does that mean that he’s wrong? Not really.

The “self-immolation” he’s talking about is there, but it doesn’t stem from the substantive content (however hard it might be for Liberals to gravitate to a hawk while they still seem to consider themselves an opposition to current, American-style hawkishness). Mr. Ignatieff’s appeal to Liberals is part of the party’s quest for an heir to Trudeau. The ring of a Harvard intellectual come home has a definite allure for a party that remembers Trudeau’s genius and often forgets how hard it sometimes was to work with such a man. It’s often said that his Cabinet meetings resembled nothing so much as lectures in advanced theory — only much harder to understand.

What Trudeau had, without question, was a gift for short, witty phrases. The sleeping elephant, state and bedroom, and “just watch me” are undeniably apt, however disagreeable they may be to some.

Michael Ignatieff’s remarks lack that sense of effortless wit. They have a worked and technical feel, without gritty metaphor or heartful humour.

The former draw listeners in. The latter turn them off. If there’s one thing a politician can’t afford to do, it’s faze an audience. It’s not hypnosis, it’s connection. And that’s what Kinsella’s really getting at: Ignatieff seems to suffer from the same disease that took John Kerry — an inability to speak to the people.

Ignatieff won’t have the chance, as Kinsella points out, to explain himself at length while cameras flash and questions fly. He won’t have an audience hanging on his every word, as awestruck students can and jaded voters don’t. In those conditions, every word matters; and Ignatieff’s record isn’t very good.

Just last Thursday, for example, Mr. Ignatieff was overheard discussing his potential flocks:

“What a bunch,” proclaimed Etobicoke-Lakeshore’s new MP, Michael Ignatieff, as he gazed upon the crowd filing into the hall where Copps was being feted. “Can we herd these cats? Yes, the question does occur. Oh sure, these are great cats. These are the best cats there are.”

High-flying academics and management gurus might credit the man with a keen appreciation of modern leadership techniques. “Herding Cats” has been tremendously popular as a 1997 book on management by prominent leadership guru Warren Bennis. It was, of course, an metaphor in its own, independent right, but since that use of the phrase isn’t common in any obvious circles, let’s give him some benefit of the doubt and say he was going with the leadership thing.

Look at the quote and Mr. Kinsella’s point comes into sharp focus. Asked for a general comment about the evening, Ignatieff tries to shoehorn in a complex idea by way of an obscure metaphor. What did his potential opponents come up with?

Bob Rae spoke (concisely) about the difficulty of the choice — a simple ploy reminding the audience that he has a normal life, just like them, and has to make a tough choice over giving it up.

Martha Hall Findlay (declared candidate) admitted she was busy looking for support — no bells, no whistles (no chance).

Ignatieff’s comment might resonate with three groups:

  • Those few sophisticated enough to consume leadership theory but simple enough to feel political solidarity with others because they refer to the same theory
  • Cat lovers who think any reference to the animals is laudable
  • Surviving beatniks

It’s not what you’d call a formidable coalition. To the average voter, the comment is just plain weird. Are Liberals cats? Is Ignatieff a bit too condescending given his choice of metaphor? Are these cats really better than Elton and Pandora?

It’s the most important job for a leader — being the public face of the party. Warren Kinsella is quite right to suggest that Ignatieff doesn’t appear capable of presenting himself properly. It might be a hard sell for a man who left a tenured post for the glamour of national elections, but the cat’s out of the bag, and he should probably be out of the race.

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