Why Michael Ignatieff is hard to find these days

He’s the fourth Liberal leader since Chrétien. This in a party that once took 81 years to burn through that many leaders.

Why Michael Ignatieff is hard to find these daysWe are pleased with reports that the New Democratic Party is thinking of dropping “New” from its name. This is welcome news. No “New” is good news, you might say. Yes, you’re right, you probably wouldn’t say it, but you might. I am younger than the New Democratic Party and absolutely nobody thinks of me as New Paul Wells. Well-Preserved Paul Wells, maybe. Rumpled and Lovable Paul Wells, if you insist. No, really, go ahead, I’m powerless to stop you. But not New.

The downside with the whole N-less DP thing is that dropping the New would leave “Democratic Party,” leaving the party of Tommy Douglas and Alexa McDonough semantically indistinguishable from a party which (a) supports parallel public and private health care systems—“two-tier medicine,” as it’s sometimes called; (b) overwhelmingly supported the Iraq invasion in 2003; (c) is American.

So perhaps they should call themselves the Canadian Democratic Party, to avoid confusion. Or they could go with Progressive Democratic Party, because then the campaign ads will write themselves: “If Stephen Harper’s party no longer wants the word ‘Progressive,’ we’ll take it.” Swiping “Progressive” from the careless Conservatives would be sure to make the new PDP a hit with the sort of people who fill out crossword puzzles. And they’re an important demographic. I mean, for one thing, the crossword-puzzle crowd almost always have their own pencils in hand when they show up to vote. Word to the wise.

But I digress. We especially like the NDP’s proposal to drop (or amend) its initial initial because it is news, if you’ll forgive the word, and this summer in Ottawa we have had very little of that. Which helps explain why Bytown political types have spent weeks debating whether Stephen Harper ate a communion wafer at the Roméo LeBlanc funeral: it gives us something to talk about.

Unfortunately the communion-wafer controversy achieved the result that truly weird stories generally do in polarized political environments. It allowed all observers to conclude they had been right all along. The Prime Minister was videotaped receiving a communion wafer but not eating it. Weeks later, the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal announced that its coverage of that moment included non-factual bits inserted in the editing process, fired the paper’s editor and suspended its publisher.

This is a Rorschach event: the conclusion you draw tells us more about you than about the event. Harper’s detractors viewed the whole thing as proof that he is wicked. Harper’s defenders decided it was proof the media are out to get him. Over on our Maclean’s blogs, much arguing ensued, and when it was done nobody had changed anyone’s mind. Surely this is a metaphor for something.

Soon we will return to our absolute favourite pastime, guessing the date of the next election. Will it be in the autumn, or later? We love that sort of question in the parliamentary press gallery, because the answer cannot be known, so information is irrelevant, so not knowing anything is not a handicap.

And yet. Whenever an election does come, a few facts may turn out to be germane.

Pollsters often look at so-called “right track/ wrong track” questions as a handy proxy for a government’s chances of being re-elected. In the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 42 per cent of American respondents believed their country to be on the right track, as opposed to 49 per cent who said wrong track. These numbers are much better than when George W. Bush was president but still represent a net seven-point wrong-track advantage. In the most recent Ekos poll to report an answer to the comparable question, 55 per cent of Canadians said right track and only 34 per cent chose wrong track, a net 21-point right-track advantage.

You will perhaps be unsurprised to learn that Barack Obama is more personally popular with his electorate than Stephen Harper is with his— 58 per cent job approval vs. 30 per cent disapproval for Obama in the CBS/Times poll, whereas 49 per cent in the Ekos poll feel Harper’s government is “moving in the right direction” and 39 per cent believe it is “moving in the wrong direction.” But in a Canadian system with five parties, you don’t need massive job approval to win.

Ekos found the Harper government’s “right direction” numbers exceed his “wrong direction” numbers in every region except Quebec, both genders, every age bracket and at every level of educational attainment. Forty-two per cent of Liberal voters reported they believe the Harper government is moving in the right direction.

This government would be very difficult to beat if seasoned professionals were attempting the task. And there is no longer any such thing in the Liberal Party of Canada.

Michael Ignatieff is the fourth Liberal leader since Jean Chrétien left office in 2003, if you count Bill Graham, who filled in as interim leader for most of 2006. Before that, from Pierre Trudeau to Chrétien and counting interim leader Herb Gray, it took the Liberals 35 years to go through four leaders. Before that, from Wilfrid Laurier through Lester Pearson, four leaders lasted the Liberals 81 years. The pace of change—well, who are we kidding, call it chaos—that has racked the Liberals in this decade is unprecedented in their history. Much has been made of Ignatieff’s low profile this summer. Maybe he is measuring the scale of the challenge he faces. You’d hide too.