When Dion is compelled to protests before the polls close that he won't quit the leadership if the Grits are defeated, he's conceding the election. These kinds of questions don't come up when you're cruising to victory.
The last time the Grits were involuntarily retired, in 1984, their banishment to the wilderness lasted nine years, until Chretien led them back to power in 1993. Their current opposition status dates only to 2006, so it might take another seven years before Liberals are re-entrusted with the country.
As wiser heads than mine, notably Andrew Coyne, have been pointing out for a long time, the Liberals failed to rebuild - failed to recognize a need to rebuild - during the three consecutive Chretien majorities. Even though those triumphs came about because the right was disunited, the opposition leaders ineffectual, and the economy booming.
All through that time, though, the Liberals were reduced to an Ontario and Atlantic Canada rump, content to cede Quebec to the BQ and the West to the Reform-Alliance. Chretien, like Clinton and Bush II, will be noted by historians as leaders who did not create sustainable success for their parties. The obvious contrast is to FDR, who died in 1945, but whose Democratic coalition, one could argue, ruled Capitol Hill and more often than not the White House from 1933 to the Gingrich insurrection of 1994. Even today, FDR's New Deal principles are so deeply ingrained that Bush II's efforts to privatize the FDR-created Social Security was deep-sixed by Bush's own fellow Republicans in Congress. And today, Americans desperately look to Big Government as the only potential rescuer of the crippled financial system - as indeed it is.
In this election, the paucity of high-calibre Grit contenders in Quebec is an embarrassment. With the BQ deteriorating as this election approached, the Liberals finally were poised to make a comeback in that vote-rich province. Instead, the Greens and even the NDP are the alternative for non-Tory voters in Quebec. The NDP has reason to hope for gains in Northern Ontario at the Grits' expense, and looks solid in its three Toronto ridings - despite the GTA being among the Grits' few remaining redoubts. The Dippers also stand in the way of gains the Liberals have to make in the Prairies and Lower Mainland to be taken seriously as a national party.
It's early for seat-count predictions even a day before the polls (for me it is), but it does appear that Dion, inheriting a Liberal party much weaker than Grits have yet to acknowledge, is going to be bruised in his first electoral outing. Tradition holds that rookie leaders be given another chance, and why not? Mike Harris rebounded from a debut drubbing to form back-to-back majorities.
But because Dion, in contrast to Mr. Bonhomie, Brian Mulroney, lacks the people skills for grassroots rebuilding of the party, it will be essential that Dion be replaced. Soon, if the Tories claw their way to a majority, sooner if they're handed another minority, with the next election around the corner as this one was when the polls closed in January 2006.
The worst of scenarios would see the Grits, caught offguard by a surprise election, nonetheless hanging on to most of their seats and thus deciding to give their tenderfoot leader another chance. This would put Dion in the limbo that Ontario PC leader John Tory suffers, with not-so-quiet rumblings of internal dissent making Tory difficult for Premier McGuinty or the media to take seriously. The Grits need someone like Layton who spends time between elections raising money, recruiting candidates, and building grassroots support riding by riding. It's dull but essential work, and alien to the policy-oriented Dion. Ideally this new Grit workhorse would also have popular appeal, policy depth and Parliamentary skills - a miracle worker, in other words. Which is pretty much what the Grits bemoaned the non-existence of from triumphs of Dief in the late 1950s and the majority-challenged Pearson years, until this oddball Pierre Trudeau emerged. It was Trudeau who lost the West for the Liberals, but he commanded the rest of the country, especially with policies that gave the Grits a 3-to-1 advantage with New Canadians. Even that constituency now is drifting to the Tories.
This site has been critical of Harper even to the point of faulting his personality. But it must be said the contrast could not be more stark between the relentless efforts of Harper to unite the right and find a path to power, and the abject complacency of the Liberal Party of Canada even before the Harper threat emerged.