On the Hill – For the Record

The Liberals may not be planning to vote against the recent throne speech (or any specific legislation that comes out of it), but the foundation for Canada’s next general election is already being laid as the race for the Liberal leadership heats up.

Sadly though, it looks like a lot of election dollars may be spilled for nought, because unless the current Conservative minority gets things horribly, painfully wrong (we’re talking on a grand, George W. scale here), neither of the Liberal frontrunners will overcome negative election portrayals any better than St├ęphane Dion did.

That’s not to say that Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff aren’t qualified. (New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc has thrown his hat in as well, but Rae and Ignatieff are the ones to watch.)

Both men are experienced, intelligent, and have the political savvy to play the game. Rae began his political career in 1978, as an NDP MP in Toronto’s Broadview riding. He went on to become the Ontario NDP leader in 1982, and the province’s first NDP premier in 1990. He was elected as a Liberal MP in a 2008 byelection.

Ignatieff’s resume is even more impressive, even without the lengthy political experience. There are the 16 fiction and non-fiction books, one of which made the Booker Prize short list and another that won the Governor General’s Award. There are the years of experience as a respected writer and broadcaster, most notably on democracy, human rights, and security, much of it gained after firsthand experience in hotspots like Kosovo.

The problem, especially when it comes to future election campaigns against the Harper machine, is that both men come with a clearly marked Achilles heel, and it will be a target their opponents will take every opportunity to aim at.

For Rae, It’s his disastrous record as Ontario premier during the ?90s, a period that saw the province struggle through one of the worst downturns in its history, including high unemployment and record deficits. The era’s woes can’t all be blamed on Rae but the connection has stuck, and Rae himself acknowledged it when he announced his leadership bid, telling reporters ?It’s a simple fact that I couldn’t hide my record even if I wanted to.?

For Ignatieff, It’s his original support of the war in Iraq. He has since publicly backed away from that stance, but with the state of public discourse today, his opponents will be able to effectively reinforce the image with sound bites while the finer points of his argument are lost.

None of which is to say that other politicians haven’t made huge missteps and recovered from them. But in this case, both Rae’s and Ignatieff’s flaws are tied to front-page issues: the economic crisis and the Iraq (and Afghanistan) wars. With both poised to drag on for the foreseeable future, the next election may just find the Liberals right back where they were with Dion?running defence more than a campaign.

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