A Number One Himself

I am a great fan of the itinerant Globe columnist Lawrence Martin, but he and I agree so rarely on the particulars of a given story that I rarely commend him to your attention. (That’s why I’m a great fan, incidentally: Lawrence goes at politics from such a sideways angle that he almost always makes a reader check his assumptions.) This time, however, Martin is bang on. It is simply weird to watch the Liberals’ Brookings Institute Fellow leader and his twin Oxford-alum sidemen howling, barking and pointing in Question Period, competing for Most Haltingly Delivered Soundbite (Scandal-of-the-Week Division), as if they were holding Pierre Poilièvre’s seat just in case he finds himself in Opposition by accident after the next election.

I’m not arguing, as I believe Lawrence isn’t, that there is simply something innately improper in debasing the high tone of Question Period. That ship has, to put it mildly, sailed. I’m just saying they’re not very good at it. And meanwhile, while they devote half a day’s resources to being not very good at Question Period, they are also not being very good at something… anything… else. I continue to be baffled at the Dion Liberals’ insistence on being clumsy, grudging students of the political game as defined by somebody else. Instead they could be defining it Dion’s way. (Yes, yes, whatever that is. The Liberal leader seem unsure, which makes it hard for the rest of us to explain what it would be if he did it. Something bookish, epistolary and earnest, I suppose. It used to be cute when he did things that way in the ’90s.)

Readers who like to make a columnist eat his mistakes, always a worthwhile pursuit, are fond of reminding me that I encouraged Liberals to make Dion their leader in 2006. (The same readers always forget I endorsed Harper for Canadian Alliance leader in 2002, but such is cruel fate.) I might as well say again how I liked to game the field back then, because I happen to still believe it’s true. Gerard Kennedy I found unpersuasive. Michael Ignatieff so impressed with his big ideas that he kept forgetting to check whether they were good ideas. Bob Rae offered the surest value — he was the Holiday Inn of Liberal leadership candidates, no surprises — but I found he had fallen into a managerialism that reminded me of a guy in the dog days of his second or third majority term at the head of government, perhaps not the best stance from which to retake power from an incumbent with the debating instincts of a junkyard dog.

Dion, as I tried to say in various ways, was highest-risk, highest-reward. He was clumsy, haughty, disdainful of the necessary craft of politics. But he might be transformational, the kind of leader whose tenure at the helm of his party and, perhaps, the country would — well, could — be a kind of glorious mess. A more interesting bet than the other candidates. The Liberals frankly surprised me by taking that bet, but they did, and now here’s the thing: Dion only works if he’s high-risk, high-reward. Because, as he has demonstrated amply, the high-risk thing is inherent and cannot be expunged from the Dion package. It is nutty to market him as a reassuring manager or, as in QP, as a scrappy regular guy. If he doesn’t like Question Period, get him out of there and find a forum where he’s effective. If he survives the showdown with, apprarently, every prominent Liberal over election timing, he must use the time he earns to double down, not to file off his rough edges because there is no file big or coarse enough for that job. If he runs as an inept student of traditional politics, if he is apologetic about the change he offers, the Conservatives will eat him alive.

Duke Ellington used to say he liked a musician if the guy didn’t try to be a second-best Louis Armstrong or a third-rate Coleman Hawkins. Ellington liked a musician to be a Number One Himself. That’s Dion, if Dion is to be worth anyone’s support.

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