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LIberal candidate Bob Rae at an Ottawa press conference on April 19, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
LIberal candidate Bob Rae at an Ottawa press conference on April 19, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

By focusing on leadership, Liberals put cart before horse Add to ...

Shortly after election day, former prime minister Jean Chrétien began calling around, including to the shrunken gaggle of Liberal MPs, touting Bob Rae for leader.

The Chrétien-Rae connection goes back some time. Mr. Rae's brother, John, once worked for Mr. Chrétien when he was a young minister, ran his leadership campaigns and worked on national elections. In the recent Liberal leadership battles, Mr. Chrétien, although publicly neutral, was widely thought to prefer Mr. Rae. So now, again, the former prime minister is talking up Mr. Rae.

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Mr. Rae will be 63 in August, and 67 at the time of the next election. Do Liberals want someone in his late 60s, or a leader from a younger generation? Do they want someone who is believed to favour at least discussions about merger with the New Democrats, if not the deed itself? Do they want someone who is easily the party's best orator, Commons performer and bilingual to boot?

These are among the considerations swirling around Liberal circles in Ottawa and beyond. After all, somebody has to take on the thankless, grinding job of leading the bedraggled party, either on an interim basis or for the next four years. And although only time will tell, there is no guarantee that this once-great party has any serious future, apart from being a third party.

The fixation on leadership, understandable in itself, is a bit of a cart-before-horse reaction to present discontents. Liberals have to figure out who they are, what they stand for and how they will attempt to survive, and maybe eventually prosper, in this radically different political environment.

Mr. Rae might say (not without reason) that the party gave the leadership to the two candidates who defeated him in 2006, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, and look what they wrought. Mr. Ignatieff produced - there is no polite way of putting this - a disastrous result.

Yes, many were the reasons for the Liberal collapse, and the party has been in decline for many years and for many reasons. But this particular kind of disaster cannot be disassociated from the leader, his personality and vision (or lack thereof), policy choices that did not resonate, advice he took (or did not) and the fundamental, inescapable flaw that too many Canadians just could not relate to him, in part because of his disconnect from Canada and all its travails throughout most of his adult life. For too many Canadians, some undoubtedly influenced by the Conservatives' sustained attack ads, he was a man from nowhere, of uncertain motivations. The perception might well have been unfair, but it was real and it was fatal.

Mr. Rae, with his presentational skills and presence, would certainly keep the Liberals at the margin of public consciousness, a reasonable objective for a dispirited, defeated third party. But for how long? He could be an acceptable interim leader for, say, 18 months. Any intention to stay longer, including through the next election, would split the caucus and national executive where the desire exists for someone younger.

As for merger with the NDP, forget it. The NDP, now cock of the walk, isn't interested, just as the Liberals were not when they were more powerful than the NDP. Moreover, fundamental differences exist between the NDP and Liberal parties over the role of the free market, attitudes towards the United States, engagement in military activities, the role of trade unions in politics, the powers of the central government, to mention a few. Wishing these differences away will not make them disappear.

Liberals talk somewhat idly about someone other than Mr. Rae for eventual, permanent leader. Justin Trudeau has told close personal friends he is not going to run for the leadership, in deference to his young family. Scott Brison has ruled himself out, saying he and his partner want to start a family. Dominic LeBlanc, a New Brunswick MP, is mentioned often, but he is not well-known outside select circles. Dalton McGuinty, Ontario's Premier, at some point after his forthcoming election?

The party will have trouble raising money, inspiring people of quality to work for it, figuring out where it stands, being heard, let alone being taken seriously for a long time. Faced with such challenges, who would want to be leader anyway?

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