The infallible ones

The infallible ones
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With the possible exception of Argentina itself, the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Argentine pope of the Roman Catholic Church probably surprised no country more than Canada. And with good cause.

In the weeks leading up to last Wednesday’s conclave, Canadians had been fed a steady diet of stories extolling the supposed shoo-in status of their own candidate, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Quebec archbishop, current Vatican insider, and supposed safest of safe bets. This “Canadian who could be pope,” in the words of a Macleans‘ magazine cover story, starred in lengthy profiles, features, infographics, and editorials in all the major Canadian papers and consistently topped lists of “likely successors to Benedict XVI” compiled by the country’s preeminent Rome-watchers.

“I have to be ready,” Father Ouellet told the CBC, displaying that trademark Canadian modesty we all love so much.

Papal rumors are famous for being wrong regardless from what country they originate, but if the Canadian press seemed wronger than most, ego was probably to blame. It’s a shibboleth of Canadian chauvinism that international institutions work best when a Canadian’s in charge, and it’s not uncommon for exaggerated waves of shock to ripple across the country whenever international instructions disagree. This seems quite bizarre now, but there was a time in the early 1990s when a number of Very Serious Canadians genuinely believed that Brian Mulroney was likely to be appointed Secretary General of the United Nations. So why not Pope Marc?

Francis’ election had another important Canadian dimension, however — it distracted the country from the biggest domestic story of the day. The morning of the white smoke, Dr. Marc Garneau, noted soldier, scholar, scientist, astronaut, bureaucrat, member of parliament, and aspirant for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada announced that he would be ending his quest for the party’s top job.

“I entered this race believing I could win,” he said. “The odds were long, but possible.”

Now? Not so much.

Concluding that leadership rival Justin Trudeau “is poised for a decisive victory,” the spaceman conceded that it’s time to “down tools” and endorse the front-runner. And I’m sure Justin will be just great, he added, tightly grinning his square jaw.

On Thursday I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which I expressed a lot of outrage over Doc Garneau’s surprise drop-out. Even if it’s obvious you’re going to lose, at least lose with dignity, professor, I said.

While no one ever doubted Justin’s lock on the leadership, the press steadily insisted that Garneau was running a reasonably strong second. The candidate, for his part, certainly carried himself as if he was, bashing Trudeau for his lack of experience and absence of ideas (all fair criticisms) and boasting his contrasting life of scientific accomplishment and academic accreditation.

It wasn’t a winning pitch; experienced or not, Trudeau was young, charismatic, and populist where Garneau was stiff, gruff, and elitist — but it was a choice. The decisive act of Justin beating Marc in an open leadership contest next month would have brought some ritualistic right of democratic closure, if nothing else. Liberal voters would have actually spoken, and even if they spoke by a margin of 7 to 1 (the supposed prediction of Garneau’s internal polls) Justin would emerge a stronger leader by rite of humbling a man of such accomplished stature. A man who often polls as one of the greatest Canadians of all time, in fact. For a prime minister-in-wanting who hopes to someday beat Stephen Harper, that’s not a bad place to start.

But instead Justin will beat six duck-sized horses whom no one has ever heard of and even fewer will remember. Post-Garneau, it’s assumed the Liberal order of succession has now made Joyce Murray, an obscure South African-born MP and former provincial cabinet minister, the designated second-placer (she being the only non-Trudeau left holding an actual elected office) but it would be amazing if her vote percentage made it to the high single digits. The much-scorned disease that supposedly plagues the Liberal Party, the tendency to coronate leaders rather than select them democratically through tough, contested elections, will go untreated once again.

That’s one perspective, at least. But as other commenters have since mentioned, what about the idea that Marc’s surrender was a sensible sacrifice for the greater partisan good? Is there not some value in modestly stepping aside to shore up the unity of the party rather than vainly staying in a hopeless race and continuing to soften up its obvious leader-designate? A softening that will almost certainly be exploited by the other side once the general election comes?

Call it the Mitt Romney thesis. Though not quite as one-sided in his support, Romney was very much the Justin Trudeau of the last GOP presidential primary, a guy whose inevitability was all but certain, yet something many insisted on contesting anyway.

Long after their mathematical path to the Republican nomination had passed, no-hopers like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul continued to trudge through primary after primary, spitting bile and contempt at the man who would so obviously be their party’s standard-bearer. Some of the Gingrich lines in particular — the bit about Romney’s “vulture capitalism” most notably — did enter the Democratic lexicon, and the narrative that Romney was a rich, flip-flopping, heartless plutocrat that “even his own party didn’t want” wouldn’t have been nearly so strong had not so many rivals been determined to prove it.

In that sense, Garneau’s resignation may represent a sort of truce on inter-party warfare more than anything else, and an acknowledgement that the good doctor’s combativeness, which was always controversial, did, in fact, need to end for the long-term good of the Liberal brand. The sooner unanimity among party insiders can be reached, the less time there is to focus on Justin’s flaws and weakness. Prime Minister Harper can do that just fine on his own.

Still, there’s more than a little dark comedy in the notion that Canadian political parties are more sensitive to political dissent than the Vatican, which has picked its last two leaders using a far more competitive and democratic process than the Liberals have used to pick theirs.

Then again, cardinals tend to be better sports.




^ 20 Comments...

  1. Taylor

    JJ, you're really creating a straw man in paragraph 2. Offshore bookies had him 3rd or 4th, and I think it was a fair expectation that he could possibly win.

  2. David

    Key word being "off-shore". I think JJ's point was that Canadians were sure that Marc Oulette would get in, and the rest of the world let us think that while they took the *real* odds at who would be the next pope. (Although, I was a little surprised by Frankie, as it seemed others (candidates and countries) had better chances)

  3. Taylor

    You're misreading me. I meant that offshore bookies recognized he had a half decent chance of winning.

    And Canadians as a whole weren't "sure" about it. Read any of the stories ,and they only discuss a contender.

  4. Scott Jacobs

    Expectations are not reality – I would be interested in the vote tallies of the 4 prior rounds for picking his Popeness. Heck, where was the new Pope on this lists of likely winners?

  5. Taylor

    They are when you're talking about the expectations themselves.

  6. David

    I am a Liberal. I fully intend to vote for Justin next month (not because he's the shoo-in, or because he's popular, or because he's ZOMG SO CUTE!, but because I truly think he's the Liberal's best chances at retaking 24 Sussex, and it's a credible chance) but yes, I was surprised at Garneau's withdrawal, both at the fact itself and the timing (the election's only in a few weeks I believe). Someone *has* to come in second, and the role of second place is actually a very important one, as you point out (being a "devil's advocate" if you will), I don't think any of the remaining "duck sized horses" are even capable of being an effective second (although I do have one picked out, by virtue of him being the only other one I've actually met one on one and discussed policy with). Surprised that Marc doesn't realize the role that the second in a "coronation" actually provides.

  7. @Andy928766

    And he didn't even end his campaign with a space pun.

  8. @AshburnerX

    I think this is one of those times I'm glad to be an American, because there is no realistic chance of an American cardinal becoming pope and no one seriously considered it a possibility. The international community still has a pretty serious worry of what the world would look like if America was in charge of even more international institutions, especially one that has as much influence as the RCC.

    What surprised me this time around was that it wasn't an African pope. Africa is essentially the last area the Church can expand into (it's not happening in China) and they are facing tough competition from the Mormons and Protestants.

  9. @Cristiona

    I dunno. My local news (in Chicago) wouldn't shut up about how People Who Know were convinced that some cardinal in New York (or thereabouts) was Most Assuredly Going To Win.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    The next Pope might be from Africa. Africa needs to develop more its Catholic organization. Moreover, they picked an older Pope with experience with the bureaucracy. As opposed to a younger one that would deal with the political aspect (as many thought it was going to be).

  11. Kento

    It took me a minute to sort out whether the person in the cartoon was Justin Trudeau or a JJ self-insertion.

  12. J.J. McCullough

    People always say this! Argh. J.J. has a big pointy nose, Justin's is smaller. And J.J.'s hair is made of one continuous piece, where as Justin's hair is always drawn as these little separate pieces of different colors.

    People often tell me I look like him in real life, as well. Which is annoying.

  13. Guest

    Is 'coronate' an actual word (when used as a verb)?
    Wouldn't it be 'crown'?
    A quick search shows it is… hum, wouldn't have guessed it.

  14. bificommander

    I would have called him Trudeaus II, but that's just me.

    And while the Vatican may hold competitive elections, note that they do it in a locked room that is carefully screened for any electronic recording devices. I'm already a bit sceptical about calling the Vatican election democratic when it's only about 100 unelected old men have a vote. But it definitely isn't open, and that handidly means that any dirty deals or vitrolic rethoric that may be used in the "election" never sees the light of day.

    And really, how is "A few appointed cardinals elect the pope in absolute secrecy" different from "A few party bigwiggs decide who they want as their leader after some backroom deals".

  15. Jake_Ackers

    The problem is assuming the Vatican has to be democratic. It's the governing arm of a religious organization. If anything it shouldn't be anything remotely democratic. God picks, someone is the next pope or they aren't.

  16. Daniel

    The crucifix really cracked me up :D

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    And Canadians as a whole weren't "sure" about it. Read any of the stories ,and they only discuss a contender.
    Report

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