Rae, party of one?

Why Bob Rae’s indecision is obscuring the Liberals’ recent successes


Photograph by Blair Gable

Each morning, the Liberal party’s press office issues a notice to journalists, describing the day’s events. Today’s closing act, it says, is a “Speech by Liberal Leader Bob Rae.”

Among his audience, there are those who think that his job title is missing a word. You won’t find it on the Liberal website, either. “Interim” has been trimmed. But despite his best efforts, when Rae speaks today, those three little syllables will be on every delegate’s mind.

By refusing to confirm or deny his own ambitions, the interim leader has put himself—and his party—in an unenviable position. If he pulls his punches this morning, he’ll disappoint delegates who flew across the country for a partisan pep rally. But if he hits it out of the park, he’ll face renewed calls for clarity about his own intentions: why would he be doing such a good job as interim leader if he didn’t want to keep the job? It’s a ludicrous question, of course, but it’s Rae’s dilemma, distilled: as far as many Liberals are concerned, he’s stuck between a big black block and a leadership race.

Rae faces an impossible balancing act between caretaker and cheerleader. Under the circumstances, he’s done a remarkable job, and I doubt you’ll find a delegate who’ll disagree. But his interim success is beginning to backfire; every news story about the Liberal party is now a will-he-or-won’t-he story about Bob Rae. In political Ottawa, Liberal leadership drama, however speculative, pushes everything else off the page—except, perhaps, marijuana.

Some reports have suggested that Rae is barred by the rules from running. That’s not true. The only thing holding him back is his word—the promise he made to the party when he sought the interim leadership. No interim leader has gone after the permanent job after saying he wouldn’t since 1919, when interim leader Daniel Duncan McKenzie did an about-face and decided to challenge William Lyon Mackenzie King and two other candidates for the leadership. He came fourth.

Rae didn’t need to take the interim job. After a remarkable career, and at the age of 63, he could hardly be blamed for staying out of the trenches. Instead, he staked his reputation on becoming “Bob the Rebuilder,” and his ambition was selfless: to leave the Liberals in better shape than he found them. To his credit, this weekend’s amendments to the party constitution are a step in that direction.

But rebuilding requires more than structural change. Without a wide-open, fair, competitive leadership contest, Liberals will miss a crucial opportunity to clarify the party’s vision for the country. A competitive leadership contest requires competitive candidates, and recruiting those candidates—persuading them to pass up other opportunities for the chance to lead a third-place party—is part of the interim leader’s job. That job becomes impossible if the caretaker becomes the frontrunner.

An interim leader who runs to replace himself benefits from his own incumbency. In Rae’s case, that means two years of publicity, press releases, cross-country travel, and staff, all at the party’s—and the public’s—expense. Other potential leadership candidates won’t just be disadvantaged or deterred; their own membership dues will have paid for their opponent’s campaign. The party, meanwhile, will lose out on the kind of leadership contest that its future success requires.

Last election, as the results rolled in, some pundits prophesized that the Liberals’ third-place finish meant that the party would soon struggle to attract the attention of the media. Wishful thinking. In the next three years, Liberals will either write one of the greatest stories of survival in Canadian political history, or else end up in in its scrap heap. If we live, someone will write a book about it. If we don’t, Peter C. Newman already has. In the meantime, the last eight months have taught us that, no matter how few seats the party holds, the political press still can’t resist a good Liberal process story.

That’s a serious problem for the party—it can’t communicate effectively when its machinations swallow its message. Today, as Bob Rae takes the stage to close this convention, his own indecision will obscure his party’s success. Until he makes up his mind, he’ll be feeding the beast with the Liberals’ own entrails.

You can’t be half-pregnant, after all.


Rae, party of one?

  1. Why are so many pundits obsessed with the leadership of the THIRD party?  If Liberals want Rae to be their new permanent leader, he will be.  Full stop.  All this ‘intrigue’ about Rae’s leadership intentions is not only premature, but a silly distraction from what matters here and now.  Or is there some kind of contest to decide which pundit was the first with the right prediction?

  2. Les liberaux nouveax held their group gab for one purpose only – to get some press coverage. Silly commenters like yvt herein are the only ones who will be bothered to report on the non-events of the weekend.  

  3.  Bob Rae was the most logical choice for leadership inthe interim, not the least due to the lack of alternatives at that moment. In two years, a lot more people can get onboard, and, as it was demonstrated by yesterday’s vote on party presidency, in this environment being the most logical option is not a guarantee.

  4. Gabe- because the THIRD party this time last year became the SECOND party and not everyone was watching. They could flip. They might not. But it’s news.

    • Gabe- because the THIRD party this time last year became the SECOND party and not everyone was watching. They could flip. They might not. But it’s news.

      Very good statement, +100500


  5. The new success of the Liberal Party is not due to Bob Rae leadership but the death of Jack Layton. Stephane Dion as well as Michael Ignatieff had to deal with the fact that Jack Layton had succeeded in getting a lot of voters to believe in him, including Quebecers.  However, the unsuccessful leadership of Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff was due to the adds that the Conservative Party put against both of them and it did worked for the Conservatives.  However, can you imagine what the Conservative Party would do to Bob Rae?  He has a lot of skeletons in his closet and the major one is his inaptitude of properly running the Ontario Provincial NDP party as Premier.  Many of his MPs quit.  Let’s remember that Mr. Dion or Mr. Ignatieff didn’t have that problem.  I was a Liberal supporter until Bob Rae became the Interim Leader.  I am hoping that the new Liberal president will not change his mind and let Bob Rae run for the leadership.  Also, lets face it Bob Rae is only in charge of 34 MPs and the only thing he has to do is complain about what the Conservative Party is doing.  That what is was doing when he was in charge of the NDP party in Ontario.  However, when he became Permier of Ontario he blamed his lack of success on a recession.  He should be retired.  If the Liberal Party of Canada cannot come up with anyone from the elected MPs to become leader, they should beg Jean Chretien to come back.  He would be an equal adversary to Stephen Harper.  Bob  Rae is a joke.


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