Friday, October 17, 2008

Herald: Could McKenna be the Liberal leader?

Not surprisingly, given his experience and successes, Frank McKenna is being touted as the frontrunner even before the current leader steps down.

We'll have more to say about the Honourable St├ęphane Dion, a good Liberal in trying times for the Liberal Party, in a bit. For now, we are wondering, hoping even, that...
Could McKenna be the Liberal leader?

By STEPHEN MAHER Election Aftermath

ON THURSDAY, a broken party turned its lonely eyes to the boardroom of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, where Frank McKenna sat and . . . well, who knows what he was doing?

He is not, apparently, taking calls from reporters. Has he called old allies to see if they will line up with him again? Well, it’s known that his old allies are working the phones.

Both La Presse and the National Post ran stories Thursday speculating that Mr. McKenna could be the Liberal party’s next leader, and his name is on the lips of every Liberal MP — both the survivors and those who fell in Tuesday’s bloodbath — as they call each other to commiserate.

It would be indelicate for them to give on-the-record interviews calling for Mr. McKenna to enter the race before Liberals have had a chance to stick their knives into Stephane Dion.

Mr. Dion, who must feel like he is walking around with a butcher’s chart pinned to his back, has steered the Liberals into the ditch. They got 26 per cent of the popular vote Tuesday — 26 per cent! That’s two points lower even than John Turner managed when Brian Mulroney stomped him in 1984.

While Stephen Harper did not manage to win a majority for the Tories, the Liberal party is broke, demoralized and humiliated. And the MPs, who just a few years ago were confident of huge majorities under Paul Martin, are looking for someone to haul them out of the ditch.

Mr. McKenna, one of the world’s natural winners, could be that guy. In 1987, with him as leader, New Brunswick Liberals won every seat in the legislature. There’s a delicious thought for disconsolate Liberals to ponder.

As premier, Mr. McKenna was famous for hopping on planes to pitch his province to businesses in Canada and around the world. And he was the kind of politician — like, say, Rene Levesque or Father Andy Hogan — who was good at explaining policy decisions to the public.

After 10 years as premier, he left in 1997 on his own terms and set out to make money, something he has been good at. He worked briefly as Canadian ambassador to the United States for Mr. Martin and hobnobbed with the Bushes and Clintons and Tony Blair and other big shots.

He also did charity work, organized speeches for Bill Clinton and top-level get-togethers for international movers and shakers, and in 2006 started working as deputy chairman of the TD Bank Financial Group.

When the job of Liberal party leader became open that same year, he opted out because his wife didn’t want him to run and because people he trusted warned him away from the job.

Things seem to be different now.

"I don’t think the people who are putting his name out there are doing it without some indication that he wants it out there," one Liberal said Thursday.

The problem is, if he wants the job, he must act now, before Mr. Dion has even been properly knifed, because Bob Rae’s and Michael Ignatieff’s people have never stopped organizing.

Those two men — former college roommates, close friends and, apparently, bitter rivals — are locked in a struggle for the party’s leadership that was only interrupted by the Dion interregnum. Other Liberals, fearing a continuation of the toxic Martin-Chretien feud under new banners, would like Mr. McKenna to come in and rebuild the party. They can’t sit around and wait while Mr. Rae and Mr. Ignatieff sign up all the organizers and MPs.

If Mr. McKenna jumps in, former Ontario premier David Peterson has said, "a massive organization would organize itself."

Even so, his victory would not be guaranteed.

Like any politician with a track record, Mr. McKenna has baggage. His French is said to be awful. Some in Quebec still remember his awkward intervention in Meech Lake. His anti-abortion position as premier would not be acceptable to the party now. He has no useful experience dealing with the ethnic brokerage politics that is such a crucial part of Liberal leadership races now. And some of his business connections would make him easy to attack from the left.

Politics has changed in the past 10 years, so he would be rusty. And it’s not clear that his wife is any keener on him re-entering politics now.

On the other hand, Mr. McKenna has been so good at so many things in his life, and possesses such a powerful personal dynamism, that many people think he could triumph.

Then there are his economic credentials.

"If the economy is the question, Frank McKenna is the answer," another Liberal said Thursday.

On Nov. 25, Mr. Clinton will join Mr. McKenna in the Moncton Coliseum for a talk on the world economy. When Mr. McKenna set that up, midway through this election campaign, he would have been able to guess that Mr. Dion was in the middle of losing the election.

It may have been conceived as the perfect occasion to launch a leadership campaign. But it looks like Mr. Dion is going to be knifed more quickly than expected.

So if Mr. McKenna wants in, he may not be able to wait that long.

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