After ruefully running down the field of candidates for interim leader, here’s the conclusion I reached back in May:
But, above all these names, the one that stands out is Bob Rae. Rae is experienced, respected, bilingual, and well spoken. He would keep the Liberals in the headlines and would keep them relevant. It’s hard to imagine a better candidate for the job.
Of course, for those reasons, Rae might very well decide to run for the top job. However, he’ll be 66 by the time the next election rolls around, and my read of the landscape is that the Liberal membership is looking towards the next generation and a long-term rebuilt. I’m certainly in no position to tell Bob Rae he can’t run for leader, and he would make a fine candidate. But a year or two as the interim leader would be an exciting challenge for a man who has accomplished so much over his career.
So it seems very much like a win-win. The caveat I’d place on it is that Rae must recognize this is a caretaker position. So that means no talk of leadership and no talk of merger.
But if he’s willing to play ball under those conditions, I can’t think of a better candidate for the job.
Since then, Rae has lived up to my high expectations. He has outperformed Nicole Turmel in the House (then again, so have most pages) and kept the Liberal Party relevant in the media. Most importantly, he has embraced his role as “Bob the Rebuilder”, going to party functions and spearheading fundraising drives.
Yes, there have been whispers about Rae’s ambition to drop the “interim” label, but those whispers haven’t come from Rae or even his supporters. Hell, if you read the rampant media speculation closely, there aren’t many “anonymous Liberals” saying Rae plans to run. By and large, there’s been little reason for Liberals to doubt Rae’s word that he won’t run for leader.
So as someone who thought Rae would be a fine interim leader and feels he has been a fine interim leader, his speech to caucus yesterday was a bit disconcerting. In it, he passionately defended his record as Ontario Premier, arguing “better a Rae day than a Harper lifetime”. It was a good line and a barn burner of a speech…I’m sure Liberals watching wished they could all travel back in time to 1995 and vote NDP.
This has predictably unleashed another round of “Bob Rae is running for Liberal leader” articles, punctuated by Alf Apps’ always helpful musings that Rae should be allowed to run for leader, so long as he resigns 6 months before the vote to “level the playing field“. What Alf and others are missing is that by virtue of Rae being leader today, the playing field will not be level in a year, and Rae’s speech was a perfect example of why that’s the case.
Rae was given a 45 minute podium to make his case for leader in front of caucus and country. He has staff paid for by the party. He gets to lead off in the House of Commons and picks who asks the questions. He assigns critic portfolios. He sets party policy. He travels on the party dime, racking up Super Elite air miles. Together, this gives him a massive advantage over other contenders, which is why he was only given the job after agreeing not to run for permanent leader.
But beyond this issue of fairness, there’s the good of the party to consider. In 2006, Bill Graham didn’t go around giving speeches about Bill Graham. Rae should be talking about what Harper’s government is doing and what a Liberal government will do – not what the Ontario NDP did 20 years ago. Defending the NDP record in Ontario does nothing to strengthen the Liberal brand – it only serves to strengthen the Bob Rae brand and, maybe, the NDP brand. The media story yesterday should have been about the St-Denis defection, Liberal rebuilding efforts, and this weekend’s convention – instead, we had to endure more leadership speculation.
Now, Rae continues to say he won’t run for leader and he deserves to be taken at his word. And if Harper attacks him, he certainly has the right to defend his record. So maybe everyone (myself included) is making too big a deal over a few minutes in a 45 minute speech. But so long as the media is hungry for Rae leadership stories, Bob will need to choose his words carefully so as to not fan the flames and detract from the Liberal message.