Rae’s Play

Rae has milked the interim leader title for all its worth

In perhaps the least surprising news story of the year, Bob Rae appears set to announce his candidacy for Liberal leadership for the third time in the last six years. Say what you will about the man (and I’m about to say plenty), but he has proven the haters who called him a “tourist” in the Liberal Party wrong.

The controversy over Rae’s candidacy stems from his now infamous pledge to accept the interim leader title on the condition that he not be a candidate for permanent leader. At the time, I cheered on the decision to name Rae interim leader and assumed his stint as “Bob the Rebuilder” would let him transition to a role as one of the party’s most respected elder statesmen. After all, Rae himself said he wasn’t interested in the permanent job, that his wife wasn’t down with it, and that it was time for a new generation of leadership.

No doubt Rae’s leadership team has already drafted the messaging to extract him from this promise. I assume Bob will shrug and say he’s following the rules of the National Executive, even though this is a smokescreen argument – it was always Rae’s promise and his promise alone that prevented him from running. As we’ve seen too many times before, there’s no law preventing politicians from breaking promises.

With that in mind, Rae’s team will privately argue that he is far from the first politician to break his word, and that he is not alone in saying he had no intention to run before declaring. After all, every politician begins their career by denying they have aspirations of leadership (and ends it by saying they want to spend more time with their family). Team Rae will argue that Rae’s change of heart is no different than, say, Justin Trudeau’s – should Justin decide to run.

The difference with Rae’s situation should be obvious, but I feel like this is one of those obvious truths that’s going to need a lot of repeating over the next year, so here goes: Rae accepted the interim leadership on the condition that he not run for permanent leader. This is akin to a politician getting elected on a single issue campaign, then flip flopping before the ballots are counted on election night. Asking the national executive to absolve Rae of his pledge would be as silly as Harper asking Parliament to pass a motion “freeing” him from his election promises.

Faced with this, Rae’s supporters will say “what’s the harm?”.

The harm from Rae’s gambit is that the reason for delaying the Liberal leadership race was to give the interim leader two years to focus 100% of his or her efforts on rebuilding the party. Instead, we’ve seen a 24/7 sideshow of leadership speculation, culminating in the need to select yet another interim leader. By the time a new leader is named next spring, the Liberal Party will have had 8 leaders over the past decade – hardly the sign of a stable organization.

More importantly, there’s the issue of fairness. Being interim leader brings with it several tangible benefits. While I don’t believe Rae has abused his powers, the interim leader could theoretical woo potential supporters with critic portfolios, committee seats, and QP time – all the while keeping rivals out of view. More importantly, the leader’s staff and budget give him the ability to criss-cross the country on the party dime, meeting potential supporters and organizers.

The very title of “interim leader” also brings with it a soapbox to control the agenda. As an example of this, I point to Rae’s caucus speech in January extoling the virtues of Ontario’s early 90s NDP government. “Rae defends NDP record” wasn’t the headline the Liberal Party needed that day, and it’s certainly not the type of speech Bill Graham would have given back in 2006.

There’s also the reality that being interim leader makes it a lot easier for Liberals to visualize Rae in a leadership role. That’s the same reason the incumbent is usually named “Best PM” on polls (even if his party trails), and it’s the same reason companies will often keep on a contract worker when a permanent position opens up.

This is why interim leaders should not be allowed to run for the permanent position – especially when that interim leader was appointed by an ever dwindling caucus rather than the membership. It’s why Jack Layton wanted Nicole Turmel to follow him in the interim, rather than someone with leadership ambitions of their own. It’s why Bob Rae and others objected strongly when the National Executive named Michael Ignatieff Liberal interim leader in December 2008.

If Rae does decide to run, it seems likely the race will turn into a divisive bloodbath, centered around the issue of when it’s ok to break promises. While nasty leadership battles are nothing new for the Liberal Party, this is hardly the recipe for renewal. Just as Rae’s leadership ambitions have been an unecesary distraction over the past year, Rae’s broken promise risks becoming an unecessary distraction from issues of substance in the leadership race.

Regardless of what the National Executive decides on Wednesday, Rae is free to run for permanent leader.

But he shouldn’t.

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28 responses to “Rae’s Play”

  1. The next Liberal leader needs to commit to at least 2, but likely 3 election cycles because if we’re going to be realistic about things, the rebuilding of the party is not going to come about the next go around.

    Rae is a great politician, he has done a strong job in Parliament and managed to use the time the NDP were off picking their leader to build the party profile, getting more ink than he probably should have.

    We need something fresh, somebody willing to put in the hard work over multiple elections to build the party brand. I just don’t see a guy like Rae being the man to do it. He has quite a bit of baggage and is from a different time. We need to move on.

    • Agreed. Rae will be 70 two elections from now, and you’d like someone who could stay on and govern for at least a term if we win at that point.

  2. I will lose all respect for Rae if he decides to run, and unlike Dan I think there’s a very good chance he tried to keep his rival MPs quiet over the last year.

    I think Rae should say he’s not running and then use the next few months to encourage people to run for the permanent leader. I also think that it would be wise for him to look for a star candidate to run in his riding and that once the permanent leader is in his place he should retire with dignity.

    • If Rae wants to run in Toronto Centre again next election, I don’t have a problem with it. The man is a star and a very talented politician – the next leader would benefit from having him in the House, and maybe even as the Deputy Leader.

  3. I enjoyed your post and very much agree. I personally am tiered of the “old boys club” doing as they wish as normal Canadians must live by the books. If the liberal party wants to prove they can progressively change Canada for the better. They first need to change themselves. I find Mr. Rae to be out of order and his selfish thirst for power and legacy revolting.

    I love the party and wish we get as hot a race as we can. I just hope the right leader will emerge and give Mr. Rae’s ego a run for his money…. #NoMoreRaeDays

    p.s. No just justin either…

  4. Seems to me that the damage has already been done (which also suggests that he’s already decided to run). If he had simply said clearly and consistently that he’s not running from the beginning, then the media focus would have been on rebuilding rather than him. But why would he have acted the way he has (at the expense of the party) and then not run? Seems like he crossed the Rubicon once he admitted the possibility that he might run.

    I personally think he could have maintained he wasn’t running until the very end, only to “give in” to a “draft Rae” movement. Then he could have at least maintained credibility and avoided being a distraction.

  5. Great post! I think it is also important to note that Rae said that he would not agree to become interim leader unless the leadership was pushed back. He was clearly giving himself an unfair advantage because the time was not used for any significant rebuilding, and rumours that he was going to run for leader again began before he even accepted the position.

    “In his letter to caucus members, Rae laid down a condition of his own. He said he’s only interested in being interim leader if the vote for permanent leader is put off for 18 to 24 months.” http://bit.ly/lsaac6

  6. Did anyone seriously expect him NOT to run ? Really ???

    Perhaps the best solution would be to let him run if he wants and hopefully someone younger, fresher (but not Justin, I agree) will wipe the floor with him. If nothing else, having Rae in the race would mean that the eventual winner would be well-tested by the end of it.

  7. I have read your article and whether Rae runs or not is not the point. In my opinion, what is important is that he have the democratic right to run.
    It is fair to question and debate whether he should run and many have done just that but, I do think that the question of his “promise” needs to be looked at again. I would agree with you that Rae, on a few occasions, did say that “the permanent leadership was not in the cards”, and he did talk about his wife and he has said that a younger generation should take over the role however, on no occasion can it be found that he ever did say and categorically promised that he would not run.
    In fact, one interview with Evan Soloman, Rae did indicate that the “rules could change and if the rules did change that would allow him to run then, he would have a decision to make” or something to that effect. In fact, Soloman has said on the issue about Rae running, that in the many interviews that he has had with Rae, and he has asked him his intention about the permanent leadership, Rae has never said one way or the other about his intentions. Furthermore, before Rae ever took over the Interim leadership, Craig Oliver, of CTV News even suggested that another Executive could change the rule. It is also noted, during an interview, with Don Martin, at that time, Rae did say that the permanent leadership was not in the cards and he did mention his wife but, to the question of running for permanent leader, he answered by saying “there are too many ifs in that question” and then went on to say something to the effect that we do not know what will happen in 18 months to 2 years.
    I have also heard from another source that your statement about Rae accepting the Interim leadership and agreeing not to run is not the actual agreement. From a party official, I have been given the information that:

    “When Bob accepted the interim position, he was asked to sign a document saying that he would not run for permanent leadership while maintaining the interim job!” (The original of this sentence was written in Capitals”)

    It actually specifies that should he eventually change his mind, he would have to step down as Interim Leader. Where is the lie? Where is the “dishonesty”? Should Bob Rae decide to run, he will step down! No if’s, but’s or maybe’s about it!

    Factually, he would only be going back on his word if he refused to step down and insisted on running while remaining interim leader.”

    Finally, I point out the change in the Andrew Coyne’s thoughts about this with the suggestion that this is just an exercise in Semantics. Could this be nothing but, the Speculation by the media against the reality of the situation?

    My problem with your perspective is the fact that I never looked at the pronouncements by Rae to be promises and I was always under the impression that he could change his mind. Just like you suggest that Justin Trudeau could change his mind, I do think that Bob Rae must have that same right for the sake of democracy.

    Now, you may have other information that proves my perception incorrect but, as I have asked from others, in intense discussions, to please provide proof that he “Promised” never to run, I have not seen any proof. Bob Rae did promise to follow the rules and, in my mind, he has done just that. If he is allowed to run by the New Executive then, in my mind, he would have the Right to run. The debate about whether he should run or not is for discussion but, it must not include the issue of the fantasy or media speculated “promise”. If we truly want to Democratize the Party, we must allow him run.

    • Rae may have been cagey in choosing his words, but the message Rae gave off to everyone was that he wouldn’t run.

      I think we’re getting into semantics here. Most people are more turned off a politician who says “I never technically lied” than by one who admits he changed his mind.

      • I think if Mr. Rae were to suddenly start negotiating a merger with the NDP, one of the other thing he promised not to do, his supporters would perhaps be a little less vocal in their assertions that he didn’t promise to do anything.

  8. The Liberal Party needs new ideas and a serious infusion of new blood if it wants to be relevant and return to national party status. I’m not sure I have to elaborate why I believe Bob Rae is not the person who can do this.

    • Here here.

      If Bob Rae truly does care for The Party he’ll recognize this and not run. Rae still has something to offer as an able parlimentarian and has value in his current position. He does deserve some credit for at least maintaining Liberal polling numbers in a climate where a drop could’ve been expected.

      Does that translate into somebody who should lead the party into the next election? No.

      Sadly, I doubt any of this will stop him from running.

      • I love that people think it’s okay for him to break his word because most people consider that Rae has done a good job. All this says to me is that had he done a bad job, however you classify that, then he shouldn’t be aloud to break his word.

  9. Mr. Godfrey’s suggestion above that the promise was only to step down from the Interim Leadership before running for the permanent leadership is news to me.

    But the understanding in public was clear: by accepting the role of Interim Leader, a candidate was disqualifying himself or herself from the contest for permanent leader.

    Sure, there was no “rule” against running: the “rules” weren’t in place at that time. But the Rule did exist, and it applied to the Interim role. And it said that whoever took the Interim role would not run in the contest. Rae accepted those terms, and now he’s trying to break from that rule.

  10. It’s all a bit of a quibble. Whether a question of semantics, or an ouright deception, if he runs he runs, and you can vote for some other candidate if you find it distasteful.
    By far the biggest risk facing the Liberal party is that you, and your Liberal brethren (what is the femenine version of brethren?), anyway that you and your fellow Liberals revert to type and start slinging mud and invective. I know it is very hard not to piss on the candidates you do not like, but you will be planting the seeds for another eternal internecine fight. What actually matters is that the Liberal Party define itself clearly, and continue to rebuild. And I do not mean recruiting a hundred thousand rent-a-members for the classic leadership contest. I mean actually attracting real people, and organising to contest the hearts and minds of Canadians retail, in betwen elections as well as during the writ period. The CPC is dominant today because they built the apparatus to do these things, so just forget about the Leadership race, and get on with building something worth fighting over.

  11. I disagree. Rae should run because defeating Rae will help build the credibility of the eventual winner. Rae running and losing will demonstrate that the leadership of the Liberal party remains something worth fighting for. To abandon his pursuit now will only blemish himself, the office, and the party.

  12. if he runs he runs, and you can vote for some other candidate if you find it distasteful

    Superficially, this is true.

    But there are additional issues at play, namely that as Interim Leader Mr. Rae specifically pushed for two policies at the LPC convention, influence which he would not have had as just another Liberal MP.

    Those two policies are (1) to allow non-paying “supporter” memberships to vote on the next Leader, and (2) to enact legalization of pot as policy.

    The net effect of these two policies, while supported by many Liberals, is to permit Mr. Rae to court hundreds of thousands of Canadians who sometimes vote Liberal and sometimes vote NDP, and encourage their support for his candidacy without needing to count on the traditional Liberal membership base in order to win.

    It isn’t a risk-free strategy, but it is one which was not open to other potential candidates, and is yet another reason the Interim Leader was required to agree to disqualify himself (or herself) from seeking the permanent leadership role.

    • Rae also argued passionately for extending the leadership timeline on the telephone convention where the vote was held.

      Maybe he didn’t have ulterior motives in doing that, but it’s clear he’s been able to use his position as interim leader to impact this leadership contest.

  13. @Paul O : Wow, you really need to stop looking at everything through that Leadership race lens of yours. The supporter category is much much more significant than what you are claiming. The supporter category may favour Rae at the moment, but the actual impact is that the Liberal Membership will NOT be deciding who the next leader is. The race for support amongst members will be about getting the volunteers and money to conduct an open campaign. The winning campaign will be won in pretty much the same manner as a General Election. Soft supporters amongst the general population will have to be reached out to, identified, and then motivated to cast a ballot for the person, and the POLICIES that they like. Rae’s advamtage is that he has a media profile, so his vision will have a lot of earned media coverage to reach out to the electorate. THAT is why his team does not want a Trudeau in the race, because Trudeau will get more media coverage, and will be better placed to morivate soft supporters. The supporter category is one of the few thingsthat could save the Liberal Party from oblivion. Without something like that, I would write off the Liberal Party, as the race would not matter unless it builds the Liberals ties to larger numbers of the electorate. Whether Rae will benefit from it is not the point. The fact that it may save the Party from oblivion IS very much the point.

  14. Agree totally with everything you wrote CG and was very pleasantly surprised to hear Rae’s announcement that he wouldn’t have run. It would have been poison.

    • The question now becomes – why did he kinda semi-encourage the issue to get speculated on all year, what was the benefit of letting the issue fester for a year, taking energy and attention away from the Party, its members and its issues?

      • Quite obviously he wanted to run and was trying to set it up for himself. I’d say he either concluded that he couldn’t win or he’d kill the party with divisiveness by running.

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