Michael Ignatieff: Why Bush Won

Roundup: Historians' Take

Lynda Hurst, in the Toronto Star (Nov. 20, 2004):

Michael Ignatieff is not in the best of moods. A double espresso helps. A bit.

On this brief lecture tour of Toronto, the Canadian historian, prolific author and Harvard professor has clearly been encountering people who dismiss the newly re-elected president of the U.S. as "a dumb, ignorant Texas hick," and it raises his hackles because he says underestimating George W. Bush is a monumental error, as the Democrats learned for the second time on Nov. 2, and that Canadians, for the sake of their own sovereign futures, should start to take on board double quick. Though he's the one to bring up her name, the mere thought of Carolyn Parrish, the newly ousted Liberal MP who's made a career of Bush-bashing, incenses him.

"She makes me cringe," he says, cringing. "That attitude is so embarrassing."

Don't misunderstand him. Because Ignatieff originally supported the invasion of Iraq, there are people who think he's become some sort of apologist for the administration. Not so.

Ignatieff is no fan of the president or, for that matter, the entire Bush clan, whom he refers to as "the Corleones of American politics."

It is simply that "it never pays, never, to underestimate this president, intellectually or politically," he says. "He is not the cipher of Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, or Condoleezza Rice. He is the boss. There is absolutely no question about it. Sorry."

He adds that the only way to beat an "enemy" is to treat him with respect.

Not that he had a vote, but Ignatieff is still intensely rankled by the outcome of the U.S. election. As a "tax-and-spend, Pearsonian, Trudeau Liberal," he is, by proxy, a Democrat, he says, and he believes John Kerry could have won, and would have, had he been a better candidate.

"Bush was very vulnerable and beatable, on Iraq because it's not a popular war, on the deficit, on the economy. But he is a highly effective politician. He was the better candidate with the better machine."

No, Ignatieff doesn't buy the morning-after theorizing that a cultural shift in America accounted for the Republican victory. Kerry had the numbers to win, he says. But he allowed himself to be victimized by "the most disgraceful political smear in 30 years" - the Swift Boat Veterans' allegations that his war record was trumped up.

In public, Bush praised Kerry's Vietnam service, but his election team's financial paw prints were all over the smear campaign, says Ignatieff.

"I was at the University of Toronto in the 1960s and the town was full of draft dodgers. It was extraordinary that Kerry even went to serve in that war when so many others, like Bush, got out of it. It was a very courageous thing to do, the only great thing Kerry has ever done."

When the Swift Boat accusations hit the media, the Democrat camp took nearly a month to respond. Tactical mistake. Ignatieff acts out what Kerry should have done, with attendant ferocity.

"He should have got up and said, 'Excuse me, excuuuse me, my war record is under attack, my record, when you were flying loops over Texas and absconding from duty in Alabama?'

"A great politician knows how to deck an opponent. Kerry could have landed a punch and put the president on the floor. And he didn't do it."

That's what the election turned on, he says. Well, that, and Bush's Bill Clinton-like ability to understand and appeal to minorities and immigrant groups who are family-oriented, Christian and aspirational....

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