Hailed just last year as possibly the next Pierre Trudeau, it has been quite the year for Michael Ignatieff. In its span, he has gone from being an acclaimed international academic, to a Member of the Canadian House of Commons, to the front-runner in the race to lead one of the the most electorally successful political parties in history and just a hair's breadth away from a position which would almost guarantee him a spot in history as either Canada's 23rd or 24th prime minister.
The stakes couldn't be higher for Ignatieff. At 58 years of age, he very likely isn't going to get another chance at this. Oh sure, he could run again six, eight, ten years from now. But it just won't be the same. He'd be yesterday's news. Ignatieff's candidacy is built on a wellspring of hope for a new direction in the party that is particular to this moment in history.
It was supposed to be different. Paul Martin was supposed to eke out another minority government in this year's election, and Ignatieff was supposed to receive the requisite experience in government. Conservatives have occassionally opted to choose an outsider for leader (most notably Brian Mulroney), but the Liberal Party has historically not been kind to leadership candidates who haven't spent time in cabinet. Every Liberal prime minister in history (save for Mackenzie, the first one) has served in the cabinet of a previous Liberal prime minister. That the outsider Ignatieff is even the front-runner in this race is phenomenal.
Ignatieff has certainly shown himself to be an impressive personality, and agree or disagree with him on particular issues - and there are many, chief among them Quebec's status within Canada, a carbon tax, Canada's role in the world - he must at least be credited for taking clear positions on controversial issues. Is that not what politicians are, ideally, supposed to do?
He's had some gaffes. Not surprising, as rookie politicians tend to make them when they are put in the spotlight. Brian Mulroney's famous "no whore like an old whore" quip was actually a gaffe of its own, as he was basically flipantly excusing patronage. Some say these gaffes have been too frequent and too damaging, and they prove that Ignatieff is not ready to face Stephen Harper in an election. Some make a good point; if a couple of these stumbles had come during a general election, they would have sunk him. (Most notably, Michael saying that he did not lose any sleep over the deaths of innocent Lebanese civilians.)
There are those who say that Ignatieff is too much an honest academic to compete in the world of politics. His positions are not informed by political calculations, but rather by intellectual whimsy, and they make him vulnerable to attack. Others contend that these are precisely the qualities that make a leader - he does not back down from controversial positions.
The thirty-something members of parliament hoping to occupy positions in an Ignatieff cabinet have probably, more than the MPs who support any other candidate, chosen Ignatieff because they sensed he was the front-runner, and they wanted to be on the winning side. Many of them are also supporting him on principle, of course, but the number of MPs who declared their support for him so early on does raise my eyebrow.
So what are his chances? Going into the convention, Ignatieff is in a very enviable position: first place. However, one has to question his growth potential on later ballots. There are a lot of anybody-but-Iggy delegates, and they will certainly unite behind one of Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy or Stephane Dion before the end of the convention. How many of these delegates there are is hard to say, but judging from Ignatieff's reception in the Liblogosphere, there are probably a healthy number of them. Then again, it has been pointed out that all he has to do is pick up about 1/4 of the bleedoff delegates from the candidates who drop off in order to win. He could theoretically win the convention without a single endorsement from any other candidate - endorsements he is not likely to get.
Ignatieff's easiest chance for victory, of course, would be the surprise endorsement of one of the other big four. Such an endorsement would almost certainly put him over the top. Will it happen? Not likely. But then again, David Orchard endorsed Peter MacKay at the last PC convention. It could happen, but I wouldn't count on it.