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.