If there is a positive to be taken from the cheery Liberal conflab on the weekend, it is not that the party is moving in any bristling new direction.
The message from Bob Rae was that the Grits are and will remain the non-ideological party, the party of the pragmatic centre where reason allegedly triumphs over gut prejudices of the left or right.
What Liberals are encouraged about is not new policy but the fact that the party is now in the hands of a seasoned political pro, one who has demonstrated a surefootedness that has been absent under the three previous leaders.
To be noted here is that Mr. Rae, first elected to the Commons at age 30, is a political careerist. To chart Canadian history is to see that the big majority of successful leaders, the latest manifestation being Stephen Harper, are career politicians. They’ve been consumed by politics since an early age.
On the Liberal side, witness big winners like Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Jean Chrétien. They ran for office in their late 20s or early 30s. Politics was essentially their lifelong profession. They all posted outstanding electoral records. In more recent times, we’ve seen what happened to latecomers such as Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff who arrived from the ivory tower world. They lacked political savvy, toughness, knowhow. They got run over by a hardened career professional.
While from a political family, Paul Martin was another latecomer, not entering the Commons until he turned 50. He was admirably keen on policy, but weak on political instincts and therefore overly dependent on inner-circle advisers whose brilliant counsel included a let’s-bleed-ourselves-to-death inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.
Political instincts are woven over time, much time. Everyone thought John Turner had the right stuff. But he left politics for nine years and by the time he came back, the instincts were gone. They had deteriorated so much that he let himself get all tied up in knots over a series of patronage appointments by his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau. Although not a career politician, Mr. Trudeau had large-sized political ambitions from an early age and edited a political magazine, Cité Libre. Lester Pearson was a latecomer to politics and while successful, to some extent, it showed. He should have but was never able to win a majority.
On the Conservative side, the three biggest political winners were career politicians. John A. Macdonald entered politics in his late 20s. Brian Mulroney, the first Tory to win back to back majorities since the great master, was consumed by politics since university days. Stephen Harper first ran for the Reform Party at 29.
There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, if you are not a political careerist, if you are not steeped in politics by your early 30s, chances of becoming a successful leader are remote.
For Liberals, the experience and professionalism Mr. Rae brings are what is needed at this time. With an election four years away, policy can wait. The one big issue he emphasized in his closing convention speech was income inequality. He sees this as a good prong with which to attack the Conservatives’ economic record. But absent from his talk are big new initiatives such as a national energy/industrial strategy to move Canada off its reliance on a petro-dollar economy – the older hewer-of-wood, drawer-of-water dependency.
Until he is permanent leader, it is the party’s operations that are the top priority. The troubling question is whether the process of his gaining the full-time leadership will return the Liberals to infighting and disunity. Leadership contenders will come forward by the fall. If Mr. Rae’s standing is strong in the polls, he will have an easy time. If it isn’t, there will be several challengers, quite possibly including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Since both Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Rae are savvy political careerists, the party has some hope. It has learned the tough way that winning at this game requires case-hardened, deeply experienced professionals at the helm.