Canada's Kennedy?

You know, it’s something of a disadvantage that Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy doesn’t have a middle name — at least, not one that I could find online. Maybe it’s Aloysius, or something like that, and he doesn’t want us to know. But it sort of limits the comparisons to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. GK just sounds like a clothing line, and doesn’t draw the obvious parallels to JFK.

Although, if it were Aloysius, the initials wouldn’t work for poor Gerard. I mean, I could see the placards now: Vote! GAK!

I haven’t had much time or interest in politics these days, thanks to the book and to being a new father, but reading Calgary Grit got me interested. The federal Liberals look like they’re having a good, wide-open leadership race, and that’s as good for Canada as it is for the Liberal party. It’s about time that the party has a real debate on what it means to be Liberals; no more of this messianic coronation business as we had with Paul Martin.

Sure, the field of sixteen-or-more candidates does contain a number of lightweights, embarrassments and nobodies, but the top of the field is surprisingly strong, especially considering the no-show of Frank McKenna, John Manley, Allan Rock or any of the other big names we were thinking could challenge Martin while Chretien was still in power. What this means is, the next Liberal leader will be quite intelligent, and he or she could represent a new generation, untouched by the Chretien-Martin civil war that helped shove the party into the opposition benches.

As I said on the recent Bloggers Hotstove, the final four candidates that I anticipate will still be on the ballots long into the night are Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy. I don’t think much of either Ignatieff’s or Rae’s candidacies. While I respect the IQ of both men, and while I seem to be the biggest fan in the blogosphere of Rae’s tenure as premier of Ontario, I don’t like the fact that they’re both almost complete neophytes within the Liberal party. Even Trudeau spent time as Justice Minister before stepping into the big chair, and Ignatieff and Rae are no Trudeau.

I’m somewhat hostiile to their candidacy because, in Ignatieff’s case especially, I think they represent Messianic candidates: examples of the party searching high and low for that charismatic leader who can take the party out of the political wilderness, without actually looking at the structural problems of the party that put it in the political wilderness in the first place. This was a complaint that I long had with the unite-the-right movement, that turned its lonely eyes to Bernard Lord, and pounced on Stockwell Day, as if just the right leader was enough to make fundamentally unpallatable right-wing policies acceptible to the centrist majority.

I like Stephane Dion. I predicted he would be the next leader of the Liberal party, and I stand by my prediction. He, to my mind, represents a willingness within the Liberal party to accept that returning to power requires hard work, self-sacrifice and critical self-examination. Stephane Dion is intelligent, relatively untainted by the Martin-Chretien civil war, and worked his way up honestly through the Liberal party apparatus and in service to his country. He also conforms to the Liberal superstition that the party leadership has to alternate between a francophone and an anglophone.

Yes, I realize that he is quite unpopular in his home province, and yet he manages to win his riding in Montreal. Despite being pushed to the sidelines in the 2004 election by the ungrateful Martin crew, he was still willing and able to come back and save their collective asses after the campaign nearly collapsed. He is not afraid to defend unpopular positions, and there’s no question that he’d stand up to the sovereigntists, and I think there’s every possibility that he’d win Quebeckers to his side.

But then there’s Gerard Kennedy. Calgary Grit, who has been acknowledged as an important figure in the Canadian blogosphere by the Liberal party, has endorsed Gerard Kennedy, and makes a convincing case as to why. I have to admit, though I question whether Kennedy has enough experience to be put within an election victory of the prime minister’s chair, the more I look at Kennedy, the more I like him. He may have been a messianic candidate when he appeared out of nowhere and seriously challenged for the leadership of the Ontario Liberals, but since then he has been fiercely loyal to the man that beat him, Dalton McGuinty. He’s also been an effective worker, with experience in managing the Daily Bread Food Bank, being an effective health critic in opposition, and a decent Minister of Education.

He’s young, articulate, has sex appeal, is fluently bilingual, and thinks very well on his feet. I’m reminded of the press conference he gave when he announced his resignation as the Minister of Education so he could concentrate on campaigning (with Dalton McGuinty standing right beside him, which has to amount to a pretty powerful endorsement). City TV reporter Adam Vaughan asked how he could consider running for the federal leadership, when he failed to win the provincial liberal race. “I lost to him,” Kennedy replied, with a wry smile and a nod over his shoulder to McGuinty, which got a laugh, but also reminded us of the work he’s done for the party since that fourth-ballot loss. The fact that Kennedy called a press conference, kept McGuinty in the loop, and promised to stay in touch to help with the transition to the new Minister of Education, shows a level of conscientiousness that you don’t usually expect to find in a politician. Certainly a refreshing change from Belinda’s bitterness.

Kennedy holds out hope, however small, that the Liberals could rebuild their popularity in the West. He’s probably Jack Layton’s worst nightmare (though I think Jack can hold his own with hard work), and Ontario voters may be comfortable voting for him. That’s just a guess, but the possibility is certainly tempting.

If the Liberals pick Stephane Dion or Gerard Kennedy to be their leader, they will have decided to work hard and fight hard for the hearts and minds of Canadians. Of these two, Dion represents the safer choice, the establishment choice, respecting Dion’s history in the Liberal party. Choosing Kennedy, however, represents a roll of the dice, a vote for unknown possibilities.

It would be a gutsy move, however you sliced it. And I think Canadians would respect that and respond. Certainly Layton and Harper would have to work harder to keep their respective standings in parliament. And in that respect, even if Kennedy doesn’t become Prime Minister, Canadians could be well served by him.

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