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.

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