In a photograph from 1968, Bob Rae sits near the end of a long conference table, with shaggy hair and tweed jacket, holding a pipe in his mouth with a stem as long as a stiletto. The Vietnam War has polarized the academic community and the university is in upheaval. Mr. Rae is 20 and a member of the newly instituted university commission on governance, a radical experiment in opening the upper echelons of the ivory tower to the lowliest members of the academy.
He has been invited there, as a rising student activist, to voice his views to Claude Bissell, then president of the University of Toronto, a man old enough to be his father – indeed, Mr. Bissell went to school with Mr. Rae's diplomat father, Saul, in the 1930s.
Four decades later, that table has turned: Mr. Rae is now 63, and his hair is snow white (although there's lots of it) and his skin is ruddy and wrinkled, and he has just presided over a Liberal Party policy convention where more than a third of the delegates are under 30. Like Mr. Rae in his youth, they have a voice (now amplified by social media) and they intend to use it. One signal was a new set of rules for choosing leaders that should put an end to old boys in backrooms deciding whom to anoint.
“The whole top-down politics is changing,” says Mr. Rae's erstwhile rival and recent ally, former Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson. “There's an Arab Spring taking over politics everywhere and you are going to have younger, media-savvy different ways of communicating. It won't just be the same old baloney you and I know from watching politics.”
You might argue that's just what the Liberals need. The party of Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau, the one that likes to dub itself the natural governing party of Canada, is in rough shape. The last time it won a majority in the House of Commons was in 2000, when Jean Chrétien was prime minister. Since he stepped down in 2003, the Liberals have turnstiled through three leaders: Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, each more improbable than the last. They didn't just lose the federal election on May 2 – they were walloped, losing their status as the Official Opposition and limping into third place behind the governing Conservatives. It was the party's worst showing in its history.
Mr. Rae is no longer the young prophet in the academic temple, the Rhodes Scholar, the NDP finance critic who toppled Joe Clark's government on a budget motion in 1979 or the surprise winner of the 1990 Ontario election, the first NDP premier ever elected east of Manitoba. He carries the burdens of what happened after that: the infamous “Rae Days,” crossing the floor from the NDP to the Liberals, and perhaps flip-flopping on his promise not to seek the party leadership again.
For now, he is caught in limbo, allowed to be interim leader so long as he doesn't admit publicly that he wants the job for real. But he also was voted parliamentarian of the year by Maclean's magazine in November, delivered three barn-burner speeches at the policy convention two weeks ago – without a Teleprompter – and has soared to 35 per cent in the approval ratings, according to an Angus Reid poll released this week.
“If the election were today, we would be begging Bob to run, because there's nobody else,” Mr. Peterson says. “He's a smarter guy than he was. He's had more experience, he's learned the game and he's battle-ready.”
The one flaw Mr. Rae can't bat away is his age. “You have to think ahead in this business,” Mr. Peterson says. “Is he the right guy to lead the party in four years' time, in the only race that matters?”
That's the rub: This could have been Mr. Rae's moment, but there isn't going to be an election any time soon. It's unlikely Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit the Governor-General to ask for a dissolution of his parliamentary majority until 2015. Mr. Rae will be 67 by then, and probably 70 before he, or his party, could realistically expect to move into 24 Sussex. Will it be his fate to have been the right man at the wrong time?