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Dion is done; sew on a new head

Once upon a time I hosted a Newsworld talk show. Stephane Dion appeared on one of our panels, back in the days when he was in cabinet and the nickname Yesterday’s Man referred to Jean Chretien. Dion was unique in the four seasons of our program—the only guest who ever brought notes, which he quietly consulted during breaks. When the cameras went live, Dion roared to life with a fierce, Question Period-style attack on his ideological opponents. Considering his English language difficulties—worse back then—it was impressive. But it also suggested a man who was working hard to keep up the pace.

So much for that. The Liberal leader is surely a blip that has blipped. Whatever else this campaign may have been about, it was surely a referendum on the political future of Stephane Dion. Dion’s campaign raised some important questions. Perhaps some of them were about the Green Shift plan and the advisability of trying to sell the electorate on the idea of collective responsibility. But the more interesting questions raised were about how political candidates are judged—and chosen.

It’s often said that campaigns should be about issues, rather than personalities. Good luck with that. When you watched Dion campaign, the personality issue was inescapable. Sure his English was bad, but so was Chretien’s. Dion did not have the royal jelly. Canadian voters are usually pretty good about voting on issues, but you’ve got to meet a minimum standard. Party leadership is a roller coaster with a sign that reads, “You must be this charismatic to take this ride.”

Given a choice between Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, how did the Liberals end up with Dion? Leadership campaigns have a compressed frenzy to them, like a first date where one must seek any small shred of information and then extrapolate an entire personality. Mistakes are made, small flaws overestimated. But unlike a first date, when you decide to bail you’re forced to grab whoever happens to be loitering at the next table. In this case, Dion.

So the Liberals must now start again. My money is on Bob Rae—he’s been Liberal a little longer than before and may now be grudgingly acceptable to the diehard NDP-haters. But it will be a close race. As for Prime Minister Harper, he failed to get a majority even while running against Dion. The Liberals came through this non-event without fatal wounds. Cut off the head, sew on a new one, buy some fresh flowers and hey Canada, your date is here. Like the new haircut?

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