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Lawrence Martin

And the next Liberal leader is ... Bob Rae? Add to ...

Some time ago, I jettisoned my crystal ball owing to its serial malfunctioning. But recently, while I was reading a book on table-rapper Mackenzie King, it reappeared in all its non-glory. Here’s what it said:

For lack of a better candidate, aging Bob Rae will become permanent leader of the Liberal Party and lead it back to respectability, though not victory. Mark Carney, the Bank of Canada governor celebrated on a magazine cover last week as “The Canadian Hired to Save the World,” will take over the Rae reins after the next election.

Benefiting from the most starlit international reputation since Lester Pearson, Mr. Carney, who recently ruffled Tory feathers in declaring the Occupy movement as being “entirely constructive,” will be elected prime minister in 2019.

By that time, the Conservatives will have been in power for a 13-year stretch, the longest since the days of John A. Macdonald. They will have moved the country so far to the right that Don Cherry will be its official mascot.

At the moment, the exceptional story is the ascendancy of Mr. Rae. Funny thing. The interim Grit leader who vowed not to seek the permanent leadership just a few months ago is already making big strides toward claiming the prize.

Everything is falling into place for him. Rae ally Sheila Copps has become the leading candidate for the party presidency. Ms. Copps has already stated that she thinks Mr. Rae should drop his pledge and run for the permanent leadership.

Fast off the mark, Mr. Rae has introduced a sweeping reform and modernization plan for the party. He is impressing many with his experience, his savvy, his command. Unlike the previous two leaders, he does not need on-the-job training. Though his Liberals are a third-party rump, it is Mr. Rae who comes across as the official opposition leader in the Commons. While trying hard, NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel lacks the experience and English-language capability to be effective in the role. Mr. Rae overshadows her completely.

He got a big break recently when Justin Trudeau declared he would not be a candidate for the leadership. Bearing the Trudeau name and youthful charisma, he might have been the one for the party to rally around. As it stands, unless Mr. Trudeau changes his mind, there is no big-name challenger to Mr. Rae and the party will be hesitant, after the experience with Michael Ignatieff, to reach outside for a newcomer.

By the time of the next election, Mr. Rae will be 67. That’s hardly apt for a party in need of revitalization and generational change. But his “Roadmap to Renewal” reform plan is designed to overcome this perception. The plan includes the introduction of an American-style primary system to elect the leader and the opening up of party memberships to anyone, free of charge. The idea is to create a whole new grassroots breed of Liberal.

As he spelled out in a speech last week, Mr. Rae is out to reclaim the lost centre. While sharp in its critique of the government, the speech was bromide-plagued in its attempt to define a new Liberal way. Reclaiming the middle will not be easy. Although Stephen Harper is brandishing his ideological stripes in some policy domains, in the area that counts most, the economy, he is showing himself to be adroitly capable of moderation. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s decision last week to put back his deficit-elimination target was an example.

Nor will it be easy for the Grits to make gains on the second-place New Democrats once that party has selected its new leader. It has a strong list of candidates to draw from.

But there is no doubting Mr. Rae’s impressive start. Given his age and checkered history, he is not an ideal choice for the leadership. But until someone of the stature of a Mark Carney comes along, there is no ideal choice. It’s Bob Rae and he’s probably a big enough improvement on previous leaders to save the Liberal Party.

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