I was hoping for an unambiguous result last night and I got it, but not the way I had hoped or predicted for sure.
Stephane Dion's leadership was the result of a grassroots revolt against the Liberal establishment which had given the party years of backroom bickering and the sponsorship scandal. When the establishment served up two highly flawed "frontrunners" in 2006 in Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, grassroots members like myself searched desperately for an alternative. I first looked at Gerard Kennedy in 2006, but backed away due to his bad French and his strangely inarticulate/monotone speaking style. After months of listening to Kennedy describe the need for "party renewal" in 2006, I still had no idea exactly what he meant by that. His refusal to back the "Quebecois nation" motion - which seemed more political posturing than heartfelt principle - will be the new albatross around his neck.
Stephane Dion was the anti-politician. We Liberals who supported him hoped his honesty and decency would attract voters back to a party overcome with sleaze and scandal in 2006. In the end, it seems that Dion's great flaws undermined his strengths.
Fellow blogger Far and Wide describes the situation very well today. Myself, I freely admit that I've been wearing rose-coloured glasses regarding Mr. Dion since 2006, frequently defending him against the many attacks. As someone who used to work in politics, but left because I hated playing the cynical "game" and the never-ending lying and schmoozing, Dion greatly appealed to me. It was satisfying to see the amoral establishment backing both a guy who supported the Iraq war and a "my principles are negotiable" NDP turncoat get overwhelmed by a grassroots uprising.
But today those rose-coloured glasses need to come off in the face of the cold, hard aftermath of yesterday's vote. I have questioned my own political judgment since Mr. Dion won and proceeded to underwhelm. At times, it was excruciating to listen to the vitriol levelled at Mr. Dion by objective members of the public, family and friends. The Liberals offered Canadians a thoroughly decent, honest, politically unskilled man prepared to fight for his great ideas - and the country handed the Liberals their worst defeat in modern history (in terms of the popular vote.)
It's now clear that Stephane Dion was a very bad fit for leader. He's grown minimally in the role and, in many ways, undermined his own campaign with his high-mindedness. The Green Shift was a good policy, but bad politics. It's a shame now that the need to effectively fight climate change will be undermined. To think that a complicated new tax reform would be seen as a potential vote winner says more about the man who proposed it than about the people who rejected the man.
There's no doubt that Stephane Dion should announce his resignation soon. The great experiment is now done and it failed.
Who should replace him? The flaws of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae remain. While Ignatieff's support for the Iraq war continues to bother me, including his inability to say he made a mistake favouring it, I doubt that this issue alone would turn an election against him (it didn't hurt Harper either). I also doubt Ignatieff would be able to attract many more progressive votes than Dion did last night (but for different reasons.) Ignatieff's long absence from Canada, plus his generally smarmy style would likely be more difficult to overcome.
Having said that, Ignatieff is brilliant and he's a bit of a clean slate. He'd also put the Liberals firmly back in the centre of the political spectrum where we usually win. His approach to Quebec is reminiscent of Paul Martin and even Stephen Harper, an approach that hasn't exactly paid dividends. But an Ignatieff leadership would undoubtedly push the Liberal cause forward in Quebec and elsewhere. In the end, I'm sure Canadians would give Ignatieff a fair shot if he were to win the leadership.
Bob Rae's devotion to his new party has been admirable. He's as skilled as politicians come and quite likeable (more so than Ignatieff). He could've walked away after 2006, but he stayed committed. That alone will endear him to many Liberals who were turned off by his arrogant run in 2006. Bob Rae has walked the walk. Yet his baggage as a former Ontario NDP Premier remains an immense obstacle. I've never sensed any kind of "Bob Rae-mania" out there.
Of these two gentlemen, I still have my doubts, but I'm keeping an open mind. I haven't ruled out either of them.
As we move forward, Liberals should ask ourselves if we ought to stay on the left with a leader like Bob Rae or Gerard Kennedy, or do we need to aim to take back the Canadian centre with a leader like Ignatieff or John Manley or Scott Brison or some other person yet to emerge?
At this stage, I'm inclined to put aside some of my quirky political instincts - the kind that led me to support Stephane Dion - and try to get it right this time. When Stephane Dion steps down, Liberals need to elect a leader capable of earning back the confidence of Canadians and finally electing a strong Liberal government. The time for risky leadership experiments is over.
One final note: I was thrilled to see Frank Valeriote win handily in Guelph - my hometown - despite the strong anti-Liberal trend in southwestern Ontario. New candidates rarely achieve this feat. This guy is going to be a player in federal politics!