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Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 7, 2012. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 7, 2012. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

Only Liberals can forgive Bob Rae’s original sin Add to ...

When Bob Rae first ran for the Liberal leadership, in 2006, he was the consummate elder statesman – leader of public inquiries, publisher of eponymous reports, chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, and an officer of the Order of Canada, with a stable sinecure at a top Toronto law firm and a permanent spot on the shortlist for Governor-General.

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Then he ran and lost, then ran again. In Ottawa, he has been a ray of light: a parliamentarian of the old school, a repository of riposte, a safe harbour amid talking points and twenty-something puppet masters. But beyond the Queensway, he is just a politician, and nothing takes the edge off greatness more quickly. Ask any Stanley Cup champion or academic titan who has ever sought public office; there is simply no amount of distinction that cannot be extinguished by rubber chicken and church basements.

So why do it? Redemption, perhaps – a chance to rebuild not only a once-great party, but also a personal legacy long ago tarnished by Tories. Or ambition, sharpened by twice falling short. But, to those of us who are not yet brined by cynicism, neither explanation seems adequate. Mr. Rae seems simply to seek to serve. The interim leadership of Parliament’s third-place party is, after all, hardly an opportunist’s dream job.

But Mr. Rae took that job, and made a promise in return; he committed, in writing, not to seek the permanent party leadership. It was a concession extracted for good reason. It would be grossly unfair for the interim leader to use the perks of his position – staff, travel, publicity – to boost his profile and prospects before an eventual leadership run. It would also be a conflict of interest; the interim leader’s mandate was to rebuild the party, a process that requires an open and competitive leadership race. Far from encouraging outstanding candidates to run for the permanent leadership, an incumbent who ran to replace himself would enjoy an unfair advantage that would deter competition, all at the party’s expense.

And yet.

Bob Rae’s coyness about his intentions did real damage. To Ottawa’s beleaguered press corps, Liberal leadership speculation is an easy distraction – a quick story to write and rewrite and write again. Mr. Rae has kept himself in the headlines, but pushed his party below the fold. The medium has swallowed the message. A year of coverage that could have begun to redefine the Liberal Party was spent instead on its greatest pastime: leadership intrigue.

Next week, the party’s national executive will hold a conference call to set the rules for the leadership contest to come, but the news was leaked Thursday night. Mr. Rae will be deemed eligible to run. It is the result he was counting on. Behind his repeated protestations that he would “abide by the rules set by the national executive” lay a not-so-secret hope – that the party brass would forgive him his trespasses and allow him to stand untainted.

Unfortunately for him, it is simply not in their power to do so. Despite some erroneous media reports, there was never any “rule” to prevent Mr. Rae from running. Candidates for the interim leadership were required to promise not to run for the permanent job, but there was never a prohibition on their subsequently doing so anyway. The national executive cannot excuse Mr. Rae for breaking his word – only the party can, on the final ballot of a leadership election.

Thursday night’s news was erroneous; the national executive cannot decide that Mr. Rae will be allowed to enter the race, only that he will not be barred from doing so. He is, as he always has been, free to run, bound by the same rules as everybody else. And the party is free to judge him for it. Liberals across the country, unimpressed by dithering and duplicity, seem ready to do so.

In the end, Bob Rae can choose to make a dignified exit from the interim leadership, and rightfully share the credit when Liberal fortunes rebound in the next election. Or he can take one last run at the prize that has twice eluded him, and risk humiliation. That choice is his – not the national executive’s – and he should choose carefully. One who has served his province, his country, and two parties with diligence and distinction deserves better than to see his second political career end like his first.

Adam Goldenberg is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School and was chief speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff

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