Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, like Robin Williams and Dennis Leary before him (but with slightly less profanity), has announced a coast-to-coast campus tour that will take him to 11 university campuses over one week in January.
The idea of a New Year campus tour was previewed in one of Ignatieff’s year-end media interviews:
As soon as the Liberal leader returns from an extended Christmas holiday – destination kept secret – he is headed out on the road, to connect with university students and rooms full of what he calls the "unconverted."
"The stuff I like doing is going out on the road," he says. "So we're going to universities. It's important to preach to the unconverted. Some of what I have to do is rally the base, raise money. But the stuff I enjoy the most is going into rooms that aren't full of Liberals – university crowds, university students are the future of Canadian politics and we have to get to them. And then the town halls I do are not full of Liberal partisans and we want to get them engaged."
It’s important to note this isn’t going to be an exercise of preaching to the converted with one-way stump speeches. The goal is to meet the undecided and unaligned and engage them in a discussion and debate on the issues of the day and the issues that matter to them, and how they should be addressed. It’s also about bringing ideas to the long-awaited “thinker’s conference” in Montreal in March.
The entirely predictable response from covseraland has already been registered: ohh lade da, the professor is going to talk to students, how elitist, he should meet with “real people” who didn’t need no fancy book-learnin’ and Tim Horton’s hockey blah blah why do you hate the troops. Fuddle-duddle, I say to them.
For one thing, Iggy needs to get his groove back. A big part of the problems we’ve experienced over the year is that Ignatieff just isn’t comfortable in his own skin right now. Being an opposition leader isn’t an easy gig, and it’s very different job than any he’s had before. My read is he has ideas about what he wants to do, the challenge is translating that into a vision he can communicate to Canadians, deciding the strategy of how and when to communicate it, learning how to do it, and finding the right balance for an opposition leader between attacking the government vs. presenting alternatives.
There are adjustments and changes to be made in all of those areas, but none of it will be successful if the leader can’t sell it, if he can’t project confidence and optimism and competence. That’s why he needs to find his comfort zone again. And that’s why a campus tour can help.
The campus environment is one where he’s at home. A former professor used to having learned debates on important issues with the students, he’ll be more at home here than in the sound-bite attack fest of parliament. Going to some campuses, rolling-up his sleeves and talking politics and policy with students will help him connect the comfort of his old job to the challenges of his new one and perhaps, by making that connection, he can use it to grow into a better opposition leader.
Secondly, it’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re willing to take the “elitist, out of touch academic” narrative the Conservatives have mindlessly parroting head-on and turn it into a strength. For the last year it seems like we’ve been desperate to avoid drawing any attention to the fact a) our guy has a brain, and b) is a world-renowned academic and journalist.
That’s a mistake. You’re not going to get anywhere running from yourself. It’s time to take his resume and make it a strength. Don’t run from it anymore; embrace it. Let Ignatieff be Ignatieff. Tell us how Ignatieff’s academic and journalism experience have influenced and shaped his politics and his priorities, and will make him a better Prime Minister.
Thirdly, spending some time on campuses engaging in policy debates with “the unconverted” may be able to do a very useful thing: remind Ignatieff of why made the switch from journalism and academia to politics in the first place: the opportunity not just to debate and discuss policy in the abstract, but to actually shape, influence and implement it. For the opportunity to do something about the issues he reported and studied on. It’s very easy to lose touch with that during the parliamentary circus. The reminder of what it’s all about can be a good motivator.
You don’t need to read between the lines of the recent messaging from the Liberals to see the strategy has shifted to a long-game. And it is going to be a long road to get to the point where the Liberals and Ignatieff are seen as a comfortable, credible alternative to the Conservatives that’s ready to govern. It's not going to be one big thing -- there is no silver bullet. It's going to be lot of little things.
So spending one week in January sending Ignatieff to campuses to engage in policy debate with students, and maybe remind him why he decided to shift into this political circus in the first place – for the chance to make policy, not just debate it – is certainly a good investment of time.
So go get your groove back, Iggy, because there’s work to do. Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers