You can’t make a middleweight boxer out of a graceful swan


Michael Ignatieff had such poor brand positioning for what he just got himself into that he couldn’t even hold his own seat in Parliament. His humbling defeat, one of the most humbling defeats in Canadian political history, coincided with one of equal magnitude in Quebec, where Gilles Duceppe went from hero to zero as leader of the Bloc Quebecois.

Fellow Canadians,

I come before you not to talk politics, but marketing. Especially, about the packaging of leaders. In national election contests, not invariably but most of the time, leaders’ images carry the day… especially when they’re negative ones. We’ve known it instinctively since Kennedy trounced Nixon. And despite his majority win, Prime Minister Steven Harper came within a whisker of being unseated as PM by a lite-socialist charmer named Jack Layton who he dismissed as “all smiles and snake oil”.

All smiles and snake oil works pretty well, if people think the smile is for them and the snake oil is for other people.

Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, just led his party to the party’s worst showing in Canadian history. As a result, he will be stepping down.

There will be those who will say: “he should have done this, and he should have done that.” Coulda, shoulda woulda. What he should have done was never shown up.

There’s a term in politics: “retail politician”. Politics ought to be about high-minded ideals, but as we know, barely qualified individuals now have a habit of overachieving because of their innate personal abilities to connect. John Edwards? Sarah Palin? These are people who got a lot farther than a lot of smarter, more ethical, more talented leaders. Somehow they managed to position themselves for success.

And more often than not, the image that works for a retail politician campaigning in opposition to an incumbent is “fighter”: middleweight boxer with a brain. Near the end of the campaign, Jack “over 100 seats in parliament now and moving to the Opposition Leader’s nice stone house” Layton was labeled as such in TV ads. His MP’s signs sprouted “Fighting for [district]” add-ons. No one doubted the veracity.

It’s difficult to smear that positioning on someone who is patently not that.

And in today’s times it’s about the only positioning the Canadian people are going to accept en masse, coming out of an opposition party like the Liberals.

Look at the history. The two most successful Liberal Prime Ministers of all time were Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau. It’s well known that Chretien positioned himself as the Little Guy from Shawinigan, and no one doubted it to look at him. He was derided for being our only leader in history who was incoherent “in both official languages”. (Of course, despite his sometimes inelegant syntax, he spoke both languages well.) For those who didn’t absolutely despise him, it played, because it disarmed. To stay in office, Chretien’s secret was to govern moderately, often having his whole government going into silence mode for months — as if they were doing nothing at all. The quieter they were, the happier people were.

And then there’s Trudeau. People often make the mistake of making Pierre Trudeau out to be some kind of effete intellectual, so that Ignatieff might turn out to carry that legacy forward, rising somehow above the fray. Well, Trudeau was smart enough to be Justice Minister upon joining the government, and he wrote a book or two. But he was undoubtedly one of the feistiest, most combative SOB’s of all time… and he wasn’t just putting it on. His book Federalism and the French Canadians sought to challenge separatism and took to task (“Le Trahison des Clercs”) the intellectual class for their treasonous incitement of ordinary people into dreams of prosperous secession. When Trudeau felt oppositional to Western Canadians (who hated his National Energy Policy), he gave the finger to protesters on a train ride across the prairies. When he got a bit overheated in a parliamentary debate, he dropped the f-bomb (famously rendered as “fuddle duddle”). He sarcastically challenged wage and price controls for a brief time, saying “What do you do, say ‘zap, you’re frozen’?” He turned around and imposed just that to fight inflation when conditions warranted when in office. It had become a tactic to rein in public sector wages while claiming to spread the pain to the private sector. Trudeau was full of spit and vinegar. When he imposed the War Measures Act to clamp down on the terrorist FLQ, he challenged a reporter by saying “there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who don’t like to see soldiers and guns (etc.)” When you’re a liberal politician who wears a flower in his lapel, there’s no better medicine for your image than taking on a few “bleeding hearts” fighting terror with tanks roaming the streets of the capital. That was in 1970. He was in power for a long time after that. And it didn’t hurt his image to marry a young club-hopper who also dated Mick Jagger.

Trudeau also inspired. In the course of liberalizing family laws he famously said “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”. He brought our Constitution home in 1982 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms attached. On this front, he fought for us as well, even though many people figured an implicit constitution and de jure rule under Britain (the “British North America Act” was our constitution’s name prior to the Constitution Act of 1982) was good enough.

In light of all that history, maybe there just wasn’t that much left for Mr. Ignatieff left to fight for. Or at least, he could never convince us what it was that he was fighting for. As a career journalist (Britain) and professor (Harvard), it’s safe to say that — upon entering national politics in his 60’s — he’d never fought for anything in his life, other than in a rhetorical sense. Political instincts? Poor. Trudeau and Chretien played law and order and won support. Ignatieff dabbled in support for the war in Iraq (complete with justifiable torture) and somehow lost his connection with the Canadian people. Chretien distanced himself from George W. Bush and made fun of the argument for “regime change” — he made a joke of the need for regime change in the United States. Because, despite his mangled syntax (on WMD’s, he mused: “What is a proof? A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It’s a proof. A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven.”), the little fighter from Shawinigan was a retail politician with his ear to the ground.

Michael Ignatieff could not have done anything to save his skin when it came to Canadians’ final judgment on his campaign efforts. A man with no connection to people, trying to act as if he had one. Classic Ries and Trout. Wrong positioning, behind the eight-ball from the get-go. Poor information scent. We clicked, and got taken to the wrong landing page. Against the sad, negative campaigns by the Conservative Party (“Michael Ignatieff: Just Visiting”), the only defenses were abstract and intellectual. Fine for you and me to consider the merits of an absentee prince who had been out of the country for 34 years. Dismal positioning for a mass election. Especially when the real deal — the real fighter — was gaining in the polls.

So, perhaps fueled by poll numbers that suggested their votes wouldn’t be wasted, many Canadian liberals chose the orange door instead of the red door, to express their desire for a middleweight fighter. Jack Layton, “all smiles and snake oil,” rides into Parliament as Opposition Leader, presiding over 100+ members. Until the last weeks of the campaign, no poll had predicted it; never had the party been considered anything more than a well-meaning “conscience of Parliament”.

And yet no one is particularly surprised. He fought for people and shook hands for decades, starting as a city councillor in Toronto. He rode his bike around town, spent a lot of time with wife Olivia Chow’s family. When Layton spoke, he spoke in local French from his upbringing in Quebec. When he cheered for the Montreal Canadiens, the elation was real.

Mr. Ignatieff (like Mr. Duceppe, who lost all but four of his province’s seats to the Orange Tide) has already resigned. He’ll return to academia: the vanquished politician’s version of judging Dancing With the Stars. A graceful exit? As much as he could have expected, from a much harsher world than he was prepared for.

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