The Liberal leader is a man of magnitude. So where is he?

Ignatieff - le PLC et le Québec

Michael Ignatieff has been completing a book over the holidays, the last chapter in a family saga. That's fine and well, but there are Liberals who wish he'd chosen another time - a better moment than the immediate aftermath of becoming party leader.
With the departure of Stéphane Dion, it was thought there would be a rush of momentum for the Grits, heady sensations of relief and revival. With the eloquent Mr. Ignatieff as the new regent, hopes were further heightened.
By comparison to his predecessor, he is a man of magnitude. But where is the new dynamism? And where is he? At a volatile political juncture when the moment needs be seized, Iggy's off to a quiet and rather unremarkable beginning.
It's not so much his own doing. Circumstances have not been kind. There was no leadership race. That meant no high-profile campaign, no media-saturated convention, no hallmark speech. His overnight enthronement served the good purpose of quickly terminating the Dion stewardship. But coronations cannot be said to be democratically edifying. Rather than bolstering credibility, they can bleach it.
Iggy's investiture had the added disadvantage of coming just before the Christmas break. It meant that, with all the holiday distractions, he couldn't showcase himself. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has maintained the higher profile with his year-end interviews and hockey tournament photo-ops.
The public discussion centres not so much on the new lord of the Liberals but on the continuing aversion to the idea of a Liberal-led coalition. Archduke Ignatieff, perhaps for good reason, has not wanted to disown the coalition concept.
But it's hard to stake out a leadership image that's crisp and gallant when you're seen as flirting with the concept of hooking up with others.
Iggy's quick ascension also deprived him of the opportunity of developing and brandishing a new set of policies to accentuate his differences with Mr. Dion. On events since his takeover, he has been reluctant to put out firm policy positions. He is seen as strong on foreign policy, but developments abroad have brought him more unhelpful news. The renewed Israeli-Palestinian clash highlights an area where his credibility is, at best, suspect. On the invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the reputed wordsmith stumbled over his words twice, first saying he wasn't losing any sleep over civilian casualties, then saying the Israelis had committed war crimes.
The party he inherits is not in the gruesome shape that some suggest. The last election was actually far from its worst performance. In four other elections, the Liberals finished with lower seat totals. In most other defeats, the party didn't hold the winner to a minority as it did this time. Its record low score in the popular vote total was misleading because five parties competed in this election, whereas there were three in many of the others.
But the Liberals' image has to be turned around, and the thinker doesn't have the luxury of much thinking time. He has to move quickly. At least thus far, unlike in Mr. Dion's case, he has been spared the bite of Conservative attack ads. He warned Mr. Harper against resorting to that kind of garbage and the PM, pilloried over his bid to strip parties of public funding, is perhaps reticent to unleash his dogs of war, at least for the moment.
He may feel he doesn't have to, considering all the negative publicity over the coalition. Mr. Ignatieff is in a bind on this. It isn't exactly a sponsorship scandal he has been handed, as was the case for Paul Martin. But it's an albatross just the same.
Public opposition to the coalition idea has been allowed to cement. No concerted attempt by Mr. Ignatieff or his followers has been made to discredit misconceptions surrounding it. If Iggy really wants to keep this option open, he should be loudly making the case of how coalitions have worked in Europe, how they are more democratically representative than single-party governments, how the Bloc Québécois could be kept at arm's length with no veto power in a coalition.
It's probably too late to succeed with such a campaign. But the coalition question is one on which Mr. Ignatieff has to fish or cut bait, lest he be Dionized. He has to get himself out of the early limbo. It needs to be emphasized that he has only just begun his leadership journey. But it also needs to be emphasized that opening steps are steps remembered. His low profile speaks too much of a party inclined to stay the course, as opposed to being in a rush to change it.

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