Wherry vs. Wells on Bob Rae

Liberal leadership: swapping theories of What’s Really Going On Here

Blair Gable/Reuters

A Friday-afternoon email exchange between two guys who were sitting 15 feet away from each other in our Ottawa bureau.

Wherry. So here’s a theory I just made up (supported by absolutely no special knowledge whatsoever). Yesterday’s news that Bob Rae is expected to run for the Liberal leadership because the Liberal party executive is expected to give him cover to do so was a trial balloon released by Rae (or someone close to Rae) to test just how deep and unruly the backlash would be and/or to give the backlash a few days to wear itself out. This is what I would do if I was Bob Rae.

Or maybe Mr. Rae is planning to run for Liberal leadership (as everyone’s been speculating for months). Or maybe Mr. Rae isn’t going to run (which will render all of this moot and/or lend credence to another grand theory of What’s Really Going On Here).

Your turn.

Wells. I admit this Rae business is a conundrum. The CBC reported that Rae is going to run for the permanent leadership, and that the party executive had cleared the way for him to do so. Then the executive, in the person of party president Mike Crawley, said they had not cleared the way. And then Rae, in the person of Rae, said he’d made no decision.

So there are two possibilities: the fix is in, and Rae will indeed be a candidate for the leadership despite his well-documented claims that he would do no such thing. Or, there is no fix and Rae’s intentions are not yet known, including, apparently, to himself.

But I have a pet theory. I’m told Rae is a spectacularly Gloomy Gus at Liberal party events, that his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Our friend Jordan Owens points out that he hasn’t led on policy development. So I’m thinking, maybe he’s decided to give up and go home to retirement, or to run the University of Toronto, or at any rate to get out of Ottawa. And maybe yesterday’s “leak” was the party executive trying to get him to change his mind.


Wherry. Sure, why not? Nothing is ever particularly implausible and only one thing is inevitable: that somehow or another the Liberal party of Canada will find a way to make itself the story. It’s like some sort of living metaphor for Ottawa or politics. Or maybe we all just collectively dreamed into existence.

This is a bit of a chicken or egg argument, but how come this happens to the Liberals and not the New Democrats or Conservatives? Is this what happens to a party that is struggling or is this how a party falls apart? Is the press gallery just not familiar enough with the internal wrangling of the NDP or CPC? Not interested enough? Is the Liberal party just more unruly by nature?

You basically couldn’t have scripted this any better. A year after a crushing electoral defeat, the Liberals are fussing over whether or not Bob Rae can run for the permanent leadership because he promised he wouldn’t when he accepted the interim leadership.  Is it possible we’re living inside the fourth season of The Thick Of It? The only way this would be better is if we all had British accents. And there was more creative swearing.

Wells. Well, the thing is, a party makes itself the story when it has nothing else to talk about. The conservative movement in this country was a laughing stock until Stephen Harper pulled it out of the well-intentioned internal process obsession that Preston Manning kicked off in 1999, and got it talking about — not about Big Ideas, actually — but just about something else besides its own internal plumbing.

The Liberals’ first mistake — well, their latest first mistake, after May 2011 — was to give themselves a huge amount of time to “heal” before tackling questions like, Why is there a Liberal party? But the problem is, you never heal, not ever, and when you’re done not healing, you still haven’t faced the questions of first principle. You need a leader. The leader has a set of beliefs and instincts. Those very quickly define the party. See Tom Mulcair, who has turned the NDP into the Questions-About-Resource-Exports party very quickly indeed.

So the Liberals need a leader. Let’s consider Bob Rae. My latest question on Rae is: if he’s telling the truth when he says he has not decided whether to seek the permanent leadership, then why the hell not? What information is he still waiting for?

Wherry. Maybe he hasn’t made a decision because he can’t make a decision until the Liberal executive makes a decision. No really. “The party is going to have to decide what the rules are and if they say they’re going to take [away] the limitation on the interim leader than, obviously, I’ve got a decision to make.” That’s what he said in April. So by that logic it’s impossible for him to have made a decision. He is living in the world as it is. And it’s not his fault that everyone else is living in the world as it might be. Never mind The Thick of It. It’s like the Matrix. Bob Rae is Neo. Or the Oracle. (Either way, Ralph Goodale is Morpheus.)

Speaking of the world as it might be: all of this obscures the central question of whether Bob Rae should be the leader of the Liberal party. Time to play hypothetical leadership race. Go!

Wells. I got out of the business of telling the Liberals how to pick their leaders in 2002, after they decided they’d had enough of the guy who won them three majorities. They deserve what they get after that. (But wasn’t I a Dion booster in 2006? Kind of. I thought Liberals should take him seriously. At the beginning of that race, that amounted to a radical stance.) (And am I a Justin Trudeau booster today? Not really. I don’t want him cavalierly dismissed. Beyond that, he’s on his own. The last Liberal leader I really liked was Jean Chrétien.)

But back to Rae. I’m afraid I’m not a believer. He has won one general election in his life. Twenty-two years ago. By accident. His instinct is to blur and dull policy distinctions at a time when the Liberals are one more blurring and one more dulling away from disappearing. But he certainly has a right to run if he wants, and if the Liberals cannot find someone they like better, they should pick him. Because, as they’ve seen, not having a leader doesn’t help.