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.