Watching Rae bow out: Liberals must be uneasy

Before we move on entirely to considering the Liberals’ next moves, let’s pause a moment to relish Bob Rae’s performance early this afternoon as he announced he wouldn’t be trying to jump from serving as the party’s interim leader to running for the permanent job. Rae lugs around heavy political baggage, and he’s nearly 64 (though he said the age issue is “bullshit”), but all that was on display today was his verbal skill.

He was funny and relaxed and candid—or at least seemed candid, which is just as good, likely better, in politics. He shifted gears from personal asides to serious political messages to partisan cheerleading with dynaflow smoothness. This is a guy who learned his politics when finding an apt phrase on the fly was accomplished with the voice, not the thumbs.

“I’ve had lots of encouragement and lots of people who wanted me to think otherwise,” Rae said of how he finally arrived at his decision not to run for leader. “But I think it’s best for the party, and I think it’s a decision that I feel very comfortable with. It didn’t come quickly, as some of you will know from having watched me skate and then dance and then skate again through many scrums and individual interviews and questions.”

So not an easy decision, even though he suggested it ultimately came down to keeping his word or breaking it. After all, he told the party executive and its parliamentary caucus last spring that if he was made interim leader, he wouldn’t stand again for the big job, as he did in 2006 (when Stéphane Dion won) and clearly wanted to in 2008 (had events not conspired to create a party consensus that all other contenders had to drop out to clear the way for Michael Ignatieff’s coronation).

“Look I would have liked to have won in 2006. I would have liked to have effectively been able to run in 2008. Those things didn’t happen. And then I decided that we couldn’t have a two-year gap after the election of 2011, and the party was set on delaying the leadership. And I said to myself, well, it’s important that we try to do the best, and I thought I could offer the best to the party in 2011 as interim leader.

He continued: “That doesn’t magically transform itself into another job. I think you have to be realistic about that, and be fair to everybody, and frankly respect rules and respect people’s expectations. I know some of you may find it hard to believe, but sometimes you do actually want to do things that pass every possible smell test.”

Note that he didn’t deny that it took him a long, agonized time to rule out making the opposite call—which would most definitely not have passed the smell test—to run despite having pledged not to. This was the candid part: a less sure-footed politician would have clumsily, unconvincingly, let on that he never contemplated trying to weasel out of his commitment.

Having told the tale of why he scratched himself from the leadership race so well, Rae was nicely positioned, as he spoke to reporters from a podium in the foyer of the House of Commons, to hold forth briefly on other matters, too. Not surprisingly, he denounced the government’s bloated budget omnibus bill, subject of so much procedural delay in the House today. But he was perhaps more interesting on the Liberal party’s future, putting his emphasis on how its old centrist positioning, strategically nestled between Conservatives and New Democrats, still has electoral potential.

“Even if you look at the assessments of public opinion, and you penetrate that a little bit and talk to people about what they want to see—do they want to be forced to make a choice between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement?” he said. “I don’t think so. I think this phony, divisive polarization, which both Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair are specializing in, is bad for the country, bad for the world. They don’t represent Canada at its best. I think the Liberal party needs to get its act together.”

Let’s assume, since it’s sort of his day, that Rae is right about the persistence of a Canadian appetite for a centrist choice on the ballot. Let’s even assume, to make it interesting, that his party is making progress at overhauling itself as an organization. Neither of those things matter much unless the next leader is politically skillful enough to withstand the pincer movement represented by Harper and Mulcair in a 2015 campaign.

But the guy with the most obvious skills—they were on full display today—isn’t running. Even Liberals who didn’t want Rae for good reason—his dubious record as an NDP premier in Ontario, his age (that B.S. concern), his lack of an imaginative policy approach—must have qualms. They might not need him, but they need someone who can pick up some of his tricks of the trade.