Prime Minister Ignatieff

Shortly after Canada’s last federal election, I wrote a little dispatch on Stephen Harper’s very vulnerable minority government.

All this is to say that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have an unenviable task of governing ahead of them, and possibly a tough election as well. This minority government bears an eerie resemblance to Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative win in 1979, when for just ten months he led a large minority government that had minimal Quebec representation. Clark mistakenly believed that he had a strong mandate, and he united the fractious opposition parties against him. Stephen Harper may well do the same.

In truth, I was painting a rather darker picture than I thought was called for, in part because a good Canadian friend suggested that the CPC was headed for rocky shoals. And now it looks as though Michael Ignatieff will be Canada’s next prime minister. To be sure, the Liberal-NDP coalition is not a done deal. But Harper’s failure to craft a convincing stimulus package looks as though it will mark the end of Canada’s brief and unlikely Conservative renaissance.

There will be a lot of finger-pointing to come. My sense is that Harper played a very difficult hand as best he could. Many in Canada’s — or rather Toronto’s — metropolitan right criticized Harper for not pursuing a more forthrightly liberal, market-friendly program, e.g., for pushing a GST cut rather than a flatter income tax. Though I’m sympathetic to this critique, Harper’s populist approach made a lot of tactical sense. Moreover, it might have proved more durably successful had CPC gains in Quebec not evaporated out of a mix of anti-war sentiment and personal foibles. The economic crisis has moved very fast. Anxiety over the future of the auto industry has rocked Ontario. The NDP is clearly rethinking its place in the political scene. All of these factors have served to unite Canada’s center-left, an outcome Conservatives have feared for a long time.

So where does the CPC go next? It’s hard to say. Stephen Harper has brought the party very far, and he remains a formidable political talent. Though never terribly charismatic, he struck Canadian voters as solid and sensible, some of his more hot-headed ideological forays from the past notwithstanding. As far as star wattage goes, I don’t think the CPC has a very deep bench. It would be nice if there were a serious Quebec contender, but my concern is that Quebec’s opening to the center-right reflected a rare alignment of the planets.

We will soon have a Prime Minister Ignatieff and a President Obama — two Ivy League intellectuals from the reformist left known for a rare combination of personal magnetism and literary prowess, both of whom have enjoyed a meteoric rise to power. Most of my Canadian friends are, I’m quite sure, swooning at the prospect. This really is the stuff of elite fantasy, and I don’t mean that to be dismissive or churlish.

I am, of course, a little bummed, not least because I prefer my political leaders to be in the vein of Felipe Calderón or Mitch Daniels: humble, bright, unassuming, and industrious. But let’s see what happens when we put the intellectuals in charge — the Harvard (and U of C) faculty rather than the first hundred names in the Boston phone book. Because I’m in my late twenties and I’m sincerely hoping that civilization doesn’t collapse before I hit a ripe old age, I wish them well. No sniping from the sidelines from me: only constructive criticism.