What comes next: The Liberals after Rae

Paul Wells on Bob Rae’s decision to forego the leadership race


A few thoughts on Bob Rae’s decision to forego the Liberal leadership race.

First, that cloud of dust you see is the Conservative Party of Canada tumbling forward to the ground. They’ll get up and regroup of course. They have a lot of money and a five-year winning streak. But they spent millions of dollars in 2012 running Bob Rae down. And now for their efforts they are left with Tom Mulcair’s NDP at a new durable plateau of popularity; serious trouble in a Quebec that will have 78 seats at the next election; and Not Bob Rae. Attack-ad money down the drain.

Second, Rae’s decision probably improves the Liberals’ chance of success. As Jordan Owens wrote here over the weekend, Rae has already shown much of what he can do as Liberal leader. Leading a third party is always hard for anyone, especially when you’re the first Liberal to do it, but Rae has been unable to craft a coherent Liberal message that went beyond middle-roadism. Some of that would have changed if Rae had become for-real full-time leader, but style is style: he has always preferred to improvise. In 2006 he ran for the leadership, in a party to which he had never belonged before, on his record, rather than on a specific program. So the Rae we’ve seen, winging it sometimes quite well but winging it all the same, would have been the one who continued to lead.

Third, the party’s predicament is partly down to poor design. That it still has no clear idea who will lead it, 13 months after its election defeat, is not ideal. It needed to settle its leadership question earlier, and it still needs to settle it soon. The national executive should seek to accelerate the leadership selection process, even if it means forcing perpetual touring-company Hamlets like David McGuinty to finally make a decision.

Who should run? Now is not a great time for Liberals to wait until next time. There is no guaranteed next time. The medium-term likelihood of the Liberal party’s survival is an open question. Anything could happen. But if the Liberals lose as many more seats in 2015 as in 2006, 2008 and 2011, there won’t be much left to lead. So everybody get into the pool. Marc Garneau has an astonishing record of success in many fields, and he has improved as a political performer. His chippy, cheerfully confrontational manner is often quite appealing. McGuinty needs to stop waiting for people to ask him, because it won’t happen, and get in the game. Former candidates like Martha Hall Findlay and Gerard Kennedy may want to tempt fate again. There’s room for surprise candidates. I like David Bronconnier, the former mayor of Calgary, but I offer his name only as an illustration of the idea that “somebody you weren’t even thinking of” might turn out to be the best candidate. I assume Bronconnier hasn’t the faintest interest in the job.

Justin Trudeau? We’ve come so far in the five weeks since we ran my article about the kid that I have already handed in my Trudeau Exploratory Committee membership card. He will make his own decision. If he runs he will have a formidable head start, as indeed he did, in some ways, on the day he was born.

Finally, the Liberal party will cement its reputation as the party of denial if it does not have at least one candidate advocating formal cooperation or merger with the NDP. Nathan Cullen, who played that role in the NDP race, won 24.6% of support on the third ballot. A recent poll suggests the notion is popular among both parties’ electorates. The Liberals are welcome to plug their ears and sing nah-nah-nah, but until they can demonstrate they have something to say to the Canadian people, the question of their party’s relationship with the NDP will remain in the air. Hint: insisting you’re against cooperation with the NDP until a month after the election is probably the wrong way to do it. Just ask Stéphane Dion.


What comes next: The Liberals after Rae

  1. Attack ad money down the drain, only if they had zero impact on Rae’s decision to quit. And if Rae’s history as Ontario premier for 5 years did him in. Imagine the decades of NDP material the Conservatives have at the ready for Mulcair. Jonathan Kay in the post has a few examples today.

    • Come on, guys. Bob Rae agreed he would not run when he took the job. He knew it going in. If he played a game with Conservative strategists by being coy about his leadership intentions for the last several months, and they fell for it–that’s one hell of a good interim leader!

  2. I am genuinely surprised that Rae put the long-term health of the Liberal Party ahead of his desire (and probable certainty) of winning the leadership. Kudos to him for seeing the forest for the trees. As a semi-partisan non-Liberal (more semi-outraged than semi-partisan, really), I was kinda hoping that he’d run.

  3. This story was on the cbc news last night. We do not have to wait for some paunchy guys in Ottawa to tell us who we can nominate for our own ridings; I am very interested in at least exploring and talking about this with my own riding association. Cooperation. If the link does not post, it’s Laurie Graham’s story and can be found at cbc.ca.


    • Thanks, Patchouli! I was one walking around with Anita and Brendon in the K-W section. Anita had the voice clip. We spent two hours with the cameraman following us around, and every single other door (except the guy CBC showed) signed our petition. That woman who said not at this time? She later ran down the street to catch us and sign it.
      http://citizensforcrosspartycooperationkw.webs.com Come join the website and we’ll share.

      • Thank you so much for this link, 2Jenn! I am excited about this and have been following the media on this. It’s like a revelation: we don’t have to be told who we can nominate; this is true grassroots democracy, and at the very least, we can explore what unity looks like in our riding with the other associations.

  4. All Justin has going for him is his name. If we want to get into politics based on a hereditary principle, why not just name him Lord Trudeau of Westmont, appoint him to the Senate as a Peer and be done with it.

    • Uh, have you ever just looked at the guy?
      He’s got a lot more going for him than that, of course, but that one does just sort of jump out at a person. In a room of 3000. When you aren’t looking at the door. Somehow, just pulls the eyes . . .

      • to s woman. . . . I seem to miss the ‘pull’ – lol

    • Justin Trudeau rode into politics on the basis of his fathers reputation and nothing more. He’s got very little else going for him aside from the fact that he’s young, photogenic, and available. Everyone of the other candidates are eminently more qualified for the position than he will ever be.

  5. NDP-Liberal merger?
    Get the talks going and I’ll get ready to write a donation cheque to the new party.

  6. It’s amazing that Warren Kinsella doesn’t seem to be celebrating this ‘win’. He’s moved straight to shameing Justin Trudeau into running.

    • Kinsella “won” the same way the guy in an LA Kings sweater at a bar “won” the other night.

  7. The fact that the NDP leader ran on the ‘no interest in merging’ ticket might mitigate the need for a merger candidate for the Liberals. When asked the question, candidates could simply say ‘well, we know the NDP leader has no interest in that’.

    • Frankly, if what it takes to beat Harper is a dozen candidates on each side suddenly dropping out of ridings where they’re splitting the vote, then that is perfectly acceptable.

      • Yes; that’s a much preferable alternative to a merger. But both parties need to be up front with that intention long before the writ is dropped, to take some of the edge off the inevitable “coalition is evil” rhetoric from the CPC.

  8. Wells I thought you were being needlessly contrarian in your half of Wherry discussion the other day when you wrote that you were hearing Rae gloomy gus at Lib get togethers. I am shocked by today’s announcement.

    • When the CBC reported last week that the party was laying out the red carpet for Rae, and he said for the umpty-dumpth time that he hadn’t made a decision, I just had a hunch he meant it. I was probably due for a lucky guess.

      • Now I am wondering how prescient your Trudeau article from a few weeks ago was. I don’t think Trudeau and Libs are good for one another at moment but what do I know.

  9. Hey Wells, since you’re tossing around ideas for unlikely, surprise candidates, here’s one for you: Danny Williams. He’s a canny businessman, and drove hard bargains for NL; he inspires people to follow him; he’s both pragmatic and daring; he keeps his word; and the visceral dislike he and Harper have for one another would make for a very entertaining time both in and outside the HoC.

    He might move the Libs a bit more to the right than they have been in a while, but I have little doubt he would reinvigorate the party. And with his oil / natural resources experience (and all those NLers working the oil patch) a Liberal party under his leadership might actually make inroads the the west. (Quebec won’t like him – but that may be seen as a bonus in some quarters).

    • I agree, but I doubt that he would win.

      • Me either, but it’s an entertaining thought.

  10. Smart move by Rae – it will be at least a generation before Ontario votes for him again, and he doesn’t have that kind of time.

    Almost anyone else probably has a decent chance of becoming PM within the next decade if they can win the leadership and hold on to it.

  11. My guess is that the Liberal party is a has been. The socialist NDP will campaign to the center to try to soak up that vote and the Liberals cannot move to the left as the NDP has that tied up. Canada is becoming a two party country and the partesin politics is just beginning.

    • As someone who subscribed to the Liberal philosophy so many years ago, I watched in amazement as they literally self destucted after Stephane Dion took over.. It will take nothing short of a miracle for them to come back from such dismal numbers in the polls.

    • There are more ways to go than left or right…

  12. Hey, thank you Paul Wells. http://www.citizensforcrosspartycooperationkw.webs.com You may have seen me walking around a neighbourhood on CBC last night. (If you didn’t blink.) In other words, we aren’t waiting until April 2013 to start this. And also, that lady who said not at this time, later chased us down the street to sign our petition. And every other door we went to, (that CBC didn’t show) signed the thing.

  13. “But they [the Conservatives] spent millions of dollars in 2012 running Bob Rae down … Attack-ad money down the drain.”

    The timing of their attack ads suggest that they did not want Rae to become the permanent leader. So, it was hardly “money down the drain” as you suggest. Rather, they were successful.

  14. Never underestimate the PM’s chess game. The attack ads have done their work–after all, Rae is retiring. The Liberals will then likely select young Trudeau as their leader, and what could possibly be better to guarantee a Tory majority next time around?

  15. I don’t know who will run, but the Liberals could do a lot worse than Leblanc. He’s young enough to be an option for the multiple elections the Liberals will need to recover. What we heard from him in his last run suggests he is interested in reforming the party. He’s smart (Harvard grad), but any eggheadedness hasn’t prevented him from winning in his rural riding. He’s flawlessly bilingual and, as a Francophone from outside Quebec, he personifies the multilingual partnership that Canada can be (a goal Liberals in particular aspire for).
    Additionally, his home region is the one that the Liberals need to hold onto. Liberals should not assume an easy and automatic recovery. At a minimum, the party needs to stay alive, and maintain a modicum of viability so that if the NDP or Tories drop the ball, they can be there to pick it up. The Maritimes are a great life support system (kept the PC’s and NDP alive in 1997 and 2000). Voters there are more likely to vote for good candidates, and to care about local issues. There is a long-standing tradition of Liberal (and Tory) voting there. And it is one place where the Liberal brand sells well – as a poorer part of the country, the region benefits from a strong Ottawa (with both the NDP and Tories embracing decentralization, the theme of a strong unified Canada should work as a wedge issue).

  16. The Liberal Party is like conjoined twins who have spent the last twenty years trying to stab each other into submission. Now it’s bled out and dying, looking for a blood transfusion. Good luck with that.

  17. IF NOMINATED I WILL NOT RUN, IF ELECTED . . I suppose it’s too much to ask for a groundswell of support refusing to accept Rae’s decision. That’s what would make the greatest difference in the party in general, to say nothing of Rae’s Days. (No, I didn’t realize that was a pun.) All this milquetoast “support” for the guy, I’m surprised he doesn’t defect to the Dips. He should have beaten Ignatieff (and this is the party, alas, that chose Ignatieff, which speaks volumes for why they aren’t being corrupted, currently, by power) Rae’s unquestionably an asset to the party and just having him in the race will make it a contest. We’ve had a few too many coronations and should’ve learned that lesson. One of the best politicians in the country and one of the top assets the Glibs have. That he bowed out only lends him additional respectability and sincerity. A demonstration in kind by the Libs would present them as the party of class. And he’s best positioned to make overtures toward uniting the left.

  18. I used to enjoy those back and forth conversations Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne used to have. Would love to see something like that again discussing this and other issues.