A year ago, Bob Rae assumed the interim leadership of the federal Liberals, largely because he committed himself not to seek that job on a longer-term basis. It is to his credit that he has now kept his promise, even though his party’s executive seemed prepared to allow him to break it.
Mr. Rae acknowledged on Wednesday that he was tempted to do so, and indeed to many observers it recently appeared as though he and his supporters were getting ready for a leadership campaign. If the Liberals were surging in the polls or otherwise showing strong signs of being in a position to compete for power again, it might have been impossible for him to resist.
But it became obvious, perhaps to Mr. Rae as well as to others, that an attempt by him to lead the Liberals into the next election would exacerbate their party’s problems rather than solve them. In need of a rebuild, and a reintroduction to Canadians, the Liberals would be unwise to install an elder statesman. And in Mr. Rae’s case, there was a particularly high risk of that backfiring, given bad memories of the NDP government that he led in Ontario – a province where the Liberals need to regain ground if they are to reassert their relevance.
In recent months, it appeared Liberals were dividing into two camps – those who thought Mr. Rae was their last best hope, and those who deeply resented the idea that he had accepted the leadership under false pretenses. Had he campaigned and won, a party that has suffered terribly for its internal divisions would have faced another, potentially fatal one.
Of course, with Mr. Rae exiting the leadership picture, the Liberals now face an even more uncertain future. But as he suggested in his press conference on Wednesday, they should also see an opportunity in that.
The recent groundswell around Justin Trudeau suggests that many Liberals are still searching for a saviour. While Mr. Trudeau could yet prove himself a worthy candidate (should he decide to run at all), neither he nor anyone else should be chosen because they’re seen to be a quick fix. Instead, the Liberals need to consider who is up to the arduous task of rebuilding their party, and is able to grow with it. With Mr. Rae having correctly assessed that person wasn’t him, the field is open.