It's hard enough being Leader of the Official Opposition without compounding the difficulty by self-inflicted wounds.
Yesterday, the youthful apparatchik whom Stéphane Dion appointed national director of the Liberal Party resigned, or quit, or moved to other duties, or assumed new responsibilities. In other words, Jamie Carroll is gone, or will be shortly.
Mr. Carroll made a mistake. He then compounded it. So did Mr. Dion. In the great scheme of things, what happened is of piddling consequences. But, as a window into decision-making and leadership in the Liberal Party, the episode is revealing.
Mr. Carroll was reported to have said in a closed-door meeting, in response to justified complaints about the lack of francophones in the party's upper reaches, that if he had to hire more French speakers, he'd have to hire more Chinese speakers, too. Various participants at last week's meeting, including the party's national president, Senator Marie Poulin, confirmed the remark.
Excuse me, but didn't a unilingual chap named John Crosbie once cripple his leadership hopes for the Conservative Party by observing, "I cannot speak to the Chinese people in their language, either"?
Once the story broke about Mr. Carroll's gaffe, what was the best way to handle it?
Tough it out? Have the leader defend his friend, thereby bleeding his own political capital? How about: Sorry, I made a joke. It was a bad joke, and I unreservedly apologize. I'm going to learn from my mistake. Case closed.
You've got to have a tin ear (Mr. Dion), or have an overbearing sense of self (presumably Mr. Carroll) to let this little story snowball. Which, of course, invites the question: Who's running the show?
It's easy and convenient to blame the people around the leader. That always happens when things aren't going well. Sometimes, the criticism is valid but misses the point:
Those around the leader are emanations of the leader. They reflect him. He appointed them. They ultimately do his bidding.
Mr. Dion will soon unveil a new chief of staff and shadow cabinet. He'll now have to find a new national director. He needs help in Quebec, where the party is disappearing in wide swaths of the province. He needs help in fundraising.
He needs some ideas apart from brittle screeds about this or that Conservative policy.
For someone who touts himself as being thoughtful, it's sad to hear him scratching away at the Conservatives. Maybe that's the fate of opposition leaders - that they are only valued in the media for criticism and not for the quality of their alternative proposals.
In any event, the Liberals have picked up the bad habits of opposition: factionalism, fractiousness and the politics of unrequited ambitions.
Liberals used to be called the natural governing party. But, in fact, the party has been in opposition for about half of the past 23 years. They were torn apart in the Mulroney years by the John Turner-Jean Chrétien rivalry, a nasty affair indeed.
Even in office, the party seldom got far from the Chrétien-Paul Martin feud. And today, although everyone denies it publicly, every time Mr. Dion causes people to question his judgment, and that of the people around him, various former leadership candidates start thinking about their chances, if indeed they ever stopped thinking about them.
For most of the past 23 years, since the end of the Trudeau era, the Liberals seldom have been an entirely happy bunch fully behind their leader. There was unity for the first five or six years of the Chrétien era, but then the Martinites became restless, then more restless, until their man finally left the cabinet, thereby making the split open and final.
This is a party with little strength outside a few enclaves in Western Canada, and alarmingly low support in Quebec, the province that sustained the Liberals from the advent of Wilfrid Laurier's time in office in 1896 until the departure of Pierre Trudeau in 1984.
With Mr. Chrétien's book about his years in office soon to be published, the question becomes, in thinking about the past quarter of a century and today's weakened Liberal state: Were his years an aberration amid long-term decline?