Michael Ignatieff is not the Liberal problem. Liberals are the Liberal problem.
Three times they failed to stare at themselves while looking for a leader. Three times Liberals opted for expediency over renewal.
In each case the party was so consumed with crowning a winner that it ignored red flags waving.
It was so sure in 2003 that Paul Martin would sweep the country that it didn’t stop to consider shaky leadership campaign performances that forecast his dithering as prime minister.
It was so sure in 2006 that voters would soon dump Stephen Harper that it spared itself the tough choice between Ignatieff and Bob Rae by compromising on the obviously inept Stephane Dion.
It was so sure in December that Ignatieff was the new saviour that it aborted a leadership contest that would have hardened the winner and might have exposed the organizational and policy weaknesses now plaguing the party.
One result of doing things the easy way is a party bouncing between ideological guardrails.
Martin was fundamentally conservative.
Dion planted the standard far to his predecessor’s left by defining Liberals as climate change and anti-poverty warriors.
Ignatieff is hunting the centre lane as he swings back and forth promising to eliminate the deficit while spending big on national projects and flexing Canadian muscle abroad.
If there’s any consistency, it’s the raw pragmatism of a big tent party so sprawling that its canopy covers libertarians, fiscal conservatives and social democrats.
Determined to manage inherent internal conflicts and bury policy contradictions, the once dominant natural governing party is content to follow anywhere any leader likely to return Liberals to power.
From a distance, Ignatieff was easily mistaken for that champion. A cosmopolitan public intellectual with patrician bloodlines, the writer and professor blended exotic success with domestic roots.
All that was missing was the discipline of due diligence.
Locked on to Ignatieff in much the same way they blindly fastened their fortune to rusty John Turner, Liberals either ignored or dismissed available evidence contradicting the consensus and conventional wisdom.
Too lightly weighed was the absence of experience in a craft that mercilessly punishes on-the-job training. Too easily skimmed was the library of awkward Ignatieff musings on the American Empire, the Iraq war and the utility of torture.
Too fast forgotten was the revealing use of “we” when talking to southern neighbours wary Canadians know as “them.”
Every portrait needs a frame and Liberals had none for Ignatieff.
A party that hadn’t seriously considered its policies, principles or purpose for nearly 20 years could only wistfully compare him to Pierre Trudeau and consider his candidacy in the context of Liberal prospects in the next election.
The Liberal conclusion, accelerated by the Christmas coalition crisis, was that the more seasoned and campaign ready Rae was too burdened by his NDP resume and that Ignatieff was the answer.
Given a broader choice, Canadians are proving harder to convince.
Ignatieff can rescue himself and make Liberals seem smart by dipping deeper into the party’s talent pool. After all, politicians dismissed in opposition, Harper and Jean Chretien included, often surprise skeptics.
But should Ignatieff fail, blame will rest squarely on deluded Liberals who persuaded themselves that returning to power was inevitable and no more demanding than a beauty pageant.
Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.