MONTREAL - So Claudius is king. You know the story: while all about him members of the Roman court are furiously intriguing and poisoning each other's wine, Claudius -- shy, stuttering, perpetually overlooked -- survives them all to become emperor.
Like Claudius, Stephane Dion is the unintended beneficiary of the fratricidal wars among his party's ruling class, emerging from the ruins of the party establishment as the consensus party leader. But like Claudius, his relentless rise can hardly be chalked up to mere luck.
There is a lesson here for his adversaries outside the party. The failure of the Liberal establishment to agree on a single candidate, dividing instead between two deeply flawed alternatives and unable to the end to bridge the gap, marked the last gasp of the party old guard, the final convulsion of denial after being driven from power last January.
But the party Mr. Dion leads is a very different party, with a very different leader.
The establishment's collapse means he has a much freer hand to retool the party for the long term than might otherwise be the case. At the same time, Mr. Dion's chances of success in the short term are much greater than is commonly assumed. For his arrival as leader signals a tonal shift in our politics that the Tories would do well to be wary of.
They should know. Part of the collapse of Paul Martin, I am convinced, is explained simply by the arrival of Stephen Harper, as a comparator. Next to Mr. Harper's calm and measured tones, Mr. Martin's old-fashioned rah-rah, which had seemed so impressive in the past, suddenly sounded blustery, out-of-key, false. By refusing to play the old political tunes, Mr. Harper single-handedly changed the metric by which political leaders are assessed.
If he is not careful, he may find Mr. Dion does the same to him. His is a singular political persona; we have not seen anything quite like it before. In intellect, courage, and conviction he is a match for Mr. Harper, as he is in diligence, perseverance and integrity. But beyond that he is a paradox: outwardly humble, yet immensely self-assured; gentle in demeanour, yet tough as nails; respectful of opponents' views, yet divinely certain of his own.
And overarching all is a quite unblemished authenticity: There is not an ounce of phony in this man. Mr. Harper has, perhaps inevitably, acquired something of a Machiavellian reputation in the course of his rise to power. Mr. Dion has not. If anything, he is regarded as almost too sincere (on the environment, in particular, he risks coming across as a fanatic, even if it is "the issue of our time"). But authenticity, besides being a virtue, is a potent political weapon. The public can sense it and hungers for it.
I'm not saying he's going to win the next election. He faces a steep learning curve, adjusting to the very different demands of being leader than minister, and will inevitably make some rookie mistakes.
If he comes to the leadership with few of the usual obligations to party power-brokers, he does so also with little in the way of caucus support, and none of the perks of office a prime minister has to dispense. He would do well to find some way to keep Michael Ignatieff, in particular, by his side.
Perhaps, also, it will take him some time to connect with the public. But his appeal grows, I think, with repeated viewings. Those who imagine Mr. Harper rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of facing him in a quick election do an injustice not only to Mr. Dion but to Mr. Harper, who of all people will know that in politics the advantage is always to the underestimated. Mr. Dion will be a hard target to hit, much harder than Mr. Ignatieff or Bob Rae would have been.
Likewise, those who predict that Mr. Dion will be toxic to Liberal chances in Quebec, on the basis of the usual Quebec nationalist fulminations, do not know their history. The nationalists are fond of predicting what Quebecers will do or think, predictions that are almost invariably proved wrong. Mr. Dion has learned, as Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau learned before him, that you do not have to fear the nationalists' wrath; that you can take them on and win. If anything has proved harmful to Liberal fortunes in the province, it is when federalist voters grow demoralized or confused about what the party stands for, as happened under Paul Martin.
So it is not a given that Mr. Dion will lead the party to defeat in the next election. What is certain, however, is that the party has more deep-seated problems that must be addressed if it is to survive and prosper in the elections to come after that. Mr. Rae and Mr. Ignatieff drew support from those sections of the party who believed that the party had only to win the next election and all would be well; that the last election was just a bad dream; that it was only a matter of time before they would be welcomed back into office by a contrite public.
So Mr. Dion's victory, with the help of fellow insurgents Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Findlay, sends a welcome signal that the party has, perhaps in spite of itself, come to accept that it has much more work to do yet. It will have to both reconnect with its existing members and substantially broaden its base to finance itself in this new era of small individual donations. It will have to rehabilitate its reputation as a party of decent people, at the same time as it is redefining itself as a party of ideas rather than simply the party of power. It will have to find a way to speak, not only to its traditional supporters in Ontario and Quebec, but to the West.
But to get to the long term, it is first necessary to survive the short term. Mr. Dion has no serious rivals at the moment, such is the devastation of the party old guard. But should he fail to perform, they will in time regroup. He can no longer enjoy the luxury of being overlooked.