|Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 7. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)
The question facing the Liberals is not whether Bob Rae should be allowed to run for party leader, but whether they can win with him as their leader.
Rae is reportedly poised to announce his candidacy for the Liberal leadership — with the blessing of the party’s executive — despite having promised not to do so when he took the job of interim party leader a year ago.
So, yes, if Rae decides to run, it will be another flip-flop by a politician, but what politician doesn’t flip-flop?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he wouldn’t tax income trusts.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he wouldn’t raise taxes.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said he wouldn’t cut services.
So, politicians say one thing and do another. We’re used to it, and, certainly in the case of Harper and McGuinty (we’ll see about Ford in 2014), it hasn’t hurt their careers.
To Rae’s credit, with the third-party Liberals also running a distant third in the polls (the latest Nanos Research survey has the NDP at 33.6%, Tories 33.5% and the Grits at 24.9%) it’s not like he’s seeking the job as an easy path to the prime minister’s office. This isn’t the old days, when becoming Liberal leader automatically made you PM.
Rae’s motives seem pure. Given that being leader of the third party is a difficult and thankless task, he obviously feels he still has a lot to contribute to the public life of the nation.
He’s also smart, a compelling parliamentary debater and a decent man who has never been marred by personal scandal.
The big question for Liberals, however, is whether they believe Canadian voters will elect Rae, particularly in light of the fact the Liberals twice rejected him as their leader.
First in 2006, when they elected Stephane Dion and Rae finished third, and again in 2009, when they acclaimed Michael Ignatieff.
Since the Liberals have remained in third place in the polls with Rae as interim leader, it’s hard to see how making him permanent leader will give them much of a boost.
He may also be perceived as yesterday’s man. By the next election in 2015, Rae will be a senior citizen, at 67. (Harper will be 56, the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, 61.) As does any career politician, Rae has a lot of political baggage which he will bring to the job of Liberal leader if he wins.
Most significant is his controversial five years as the NDP premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995 — in fairness, a terrible time for the province’s economy — during which Rae’s economic policies managed to tick off corporate CEOs, union bosses and everyone in between.
Federally, Rae declared himself chief salesman for the Liberal-NDP, Bloc-supported accord by which the opposition parties tried to take power from the minority Harper government following the 2008 election, a deal which proved to be highly unpopular with the public.
On the other hand, who do the Liberals have that’s better?
Choosing a leader isn’t about having perfect choices but making the best choice from the options you have.
My view is the Liberals first need to figure out who they are and what they stand for — which I don’t think voters are clear on anymore — and that it would be better to elect a younger leader prepared to rebuild the party over the long haul.
I think most Canadians, by this point, know what Rae is all about and aren’t going to make him prime minister, particularly with his party stuck in third place and still distrusted by large sections of the country.
Then again, I, along with virtually all of the media who covered Rae in the 1980s, never thought he would become premier of Ontario. Ever.
And what did we know?