Thursday, November 26, 2009

Michael Ignatieff and Bold New Ideas

I have to admit that after reading several of Michael Ignatieff's books, I have been surprised that he has not been able to resonate with Canadians.

I've never really been a Liberal supporter, and in fact only joined the Party after Harper's horrific assault on this country during the Parliamentary crisis. Even insider Tom Flanagan recently confirmed that the entire thing was a sham.

It's time we put intelligence back into government, and I still very much believe that Michael Ignatieff is the man to do that.

In 2005, Stephen Harper was in the same boat. Though the only right-wing party, the Conservatives were polling at 23% and Harper's rating was a mere 14%.

What I liked the most about Mr. Ignatieff, that flew off the pages, was his ability to see all sides of an issue and present them in a way that you gained an understanding of what motivated people.

When covering conflicts, he told the stories of the peasants, the soldiers and the warlords, reaching deep in his portrayals. I think maybe his advisers are telling him what to say, because so far he does not really seem to be himself.

We see it in places like London Ontario, and I hope the town hall meetings he has planned will allow Canadians to see his vision for this country. He may have lived abroad, but after reading his Massey Lectures 'The Rights Revolution', he clearly knows our values and our potential.

Ironically, his students at Harvard often complained that he spent too much time talking about Canada and our Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Without bold new ideas, Liberals sure to decline

By Bob Hepburn Editorial Page
November 26, 2009

Michael Ignatieff, who is under mounting criticism from Liberal party supporters for his failure to promote any major ideas that don't just mirror those of Stephen Harper, claims he's really a guy who gets excited about ideas.

To show he's serious, the embattled Liberal leader is promoting an ideas conference to be staged in Montreal in late March. Branded "Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge," the three-day session is intended to develop a vision of what kind of country Canada should be by 2017, the nation's 150th anniversary, and what policies are needed to make it happen.

As Ignatieff envisages it, the conference will be similar to the party's historic 1960 Kingston and 1991 Aylmer conferences, both of which laid the policy groundwork for the Liberals' return to power after years in opposition.

To kick off the process, Ignatieff will attend town hall meetings across Canada starting in January to hear from grassroots Liberals.

But before he goes on the road, Ignatieff would be well advised to read a fascinating new book, The Heart of Power, which details the fight for U.S. health-care reform over the last 11 presidencies, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Besides providing a history of the U.S. health-care debate, the book offers unique perspectives into how leaders arrive at their big ideas and how they get them passed into legislation.

These insights can apply just as equally to the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa as they do to the White House in Washington.

In Washington, each presidency succeeds or fails on ideas. The same is true in Ottawa for prime ministers and their governments.

According to the authors David Blumenthal and James Morone, both respected academics, clear and bold ideas "move political mountains because they inspire followers and sustain movements."

In contrast, they note, opponents have "a field day caricaturing wonky analytic convolutions" that some leaders go through in trying to show voters how smart they are.

Here in Canada, Ignatieff has been campaigning on a slogan that the Liberals "can do better" than the ruling Conservatives.

By itself, such a strategy is tantamount to political suicide because, as Blumenthal and Morone describe in detail, a leader's emphasis on efficiency and technique, while good, is no substitute for bold ideas that answer political challenges and spark popular support.

The real power of a president or a prime minister is to persuade a nation, to put a new idea before the public and get everyone talking about it. That's what prime minister Lester Pearson did in winning passage of medicare in the 1960s.

The book also suggests rules for leaders who pursue bold ideas.

Passion tops the list, with the authors saying a leader must care deeply about and focus on the two or three issues "that seem lodged in the candidate's gut."

For Ignatieff, what are those issues? Does anyone know? Does even Ignatieff know?

Defending medicare against assaults by private health-care advocates and championing the environment would be good starting points for the Liberals.

Second, leaders must bring a plan with them to office, because once in power there's no time to be dreaming up major legislation.

Third, the authors advise leaders to overrule their economists, whose job is to warn of the risks of bold new programs that have large price tags. The job of a leader, they contend, is to take risks.

Fourth, it's the leader's job to go public and generate grassroots support for his or her ideas. Leaders who want to enact major new programs "bring a clear mandate from the electorate."

For the Liberals, the Montreal conference will be critical as they develop their election platform.

Progressive Liberals worry, however, that the conference organizers, in an effort to appeal to a television audience, will go for vacuous slogans and flashy video clips rather than depth and substance.

If that happens, then Ignatieff and the Liberals could well be facing yet another election disaster.

That's because, as the authors of The Heart of Power rightly warn: "The sure sign of a party in decline is a larder bare of ideas."

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