It was appropriate for Stéphane Dion to take responsibility for his party's dismal showing in last week's Quebec by-elections - the first time. Liberals, unhappy with their new leader's performance and possibly wondering if they wouldn't be better off with Michael Ignatieff, needed to hear that he understood their concerns and was working to address his shortcomings. But there is only so much public self-flagellation any politician can engage in before it becomes unpleasant to watch, and his media blitz following the by-elections crossed that line.
Beginning with a display of contrition last Wednesday in an interview on Radio-Canada that on its own would have been sufficient, Mr. Dion engaged in a mea culpa tour in which he pledged to "bare his soul." Get to know him better, he suggested, and we would grow to like him. He has allowed himself to be defined by his opponents, such that Canadians only know him as a "caricature." He has not adapted to life as a leader, as opposed to life as a minister. He must learn to be more open, because "I'm a fairly discreet person; I like to talk about things but not necessarily about myself." He needs to better identify himself as a Quebecker and not to come off as such a "rigid, closed centralist."
The Liberal Leader summed it up last Thursday: "I have seen that on the ground in the by-elections - people are saying 'Mr. Dion, we don't know you,' or 'Mr. Dion, we know who you are, and we don't like it' - so I need to help my party in solving this problem and in showing to Quebeckers how much I am proud of what I am as a Quebec City kid."
Much of this is no doubt true, although Mr. Dion should avoid going so far to prove himself a Quebecker that he undermines the federalist credentials that are among his greatest assets and helped get him the Liberals' top job in the first place. But he should be retreating behind the scenes to give his party the overhaul it needs on everything from policy to organization to his own image. Grovelling, better suited to the daytime talk-show circuit, only serves to reinforce the perception of weakness that continues to hurt him.
The other manner in which Mr. Dion has attempted to rebound from the by-elections - a simplistic screed on foreign affairs in which he accused the Conservative government of "giv[ing] Canada a foreign policy that draws its inspiration from the American right" - was perhaps even worse. He needs to take a deep breath and relax. Mr. Dion will have his job for a while yet.