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Bob Rae was trying not to look back in anger, but he couldn't quite help himself.

"There's no point in saying that the Governor-General should have done this or that," Mr. Rae said Friday. Then, after a little prompting, he went ahead anyway and shared some pent-up thoughts about that time back in 2008 when Stephen Harper was able to put off a confidence vote by proroguing the House of Commons.

"I think certainly [Michaëlle Jean] should've told us why she made the decision," he said. "The notion that this would just be some sort of ex-cathedra private judgment on which there'd be no explanation, no justification, and it would all be left in the shroud of mystery, I think is just wrong." It was a turn of events that clearly offended Mr. Rae, and the same can be said for his fellow Liberals' subsequent decision to back down from joining other opposition parties in bringing down what was then a minority Conservative government.

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"One of the realities of political combat is that if you let your opponent up off the floor and say, 'Okay, let's have another fight,' then you've given him air that you shouldn't have given him," he lamented.

Much about what's happened during seven years of Conservative rule seems to genuinely infuriate Mr. Rae. To listen to him expound upon them with a combination of emotion, thoughtfulness and wit during an editorial board meeting was to understand why he has proven one of the very best opposition politicians of his generation. But it was also to suspect he was right to set aside his dreams of leading the federal Liberals on something more than an interim basis.

There are few subjects on which Mr. Rae cannot dissect the government's faults, including those Conservatives consider their most solid ground. Mr. Harper, he contended, "declares that Canada's an energy superpower," but has "no effective plan" to make that a reality, offering minimal help to Alberta Premier Alison Redford in selling a skeptical U.S. government on a pipeline.

Mr. Rae also comes up with quotable new spins on familiar criticisms, such as the government's neutering of public servants. "The British Foreign Office are encouraged to tweet and connect and engage and present the modern face of British diplomacy," he said. "How many Canadian ambassadors do you think are going to be allowed to tweet under this administration? They can't breathe, let alone tweet."

What Mr. Rae does not do as well is talk optimistically about how things could be better. He has thoughts on what a Liberal government might do differently, including engaging more co-operatively with the provinces and taking a national leadership role on health care and education. But rather than talk about how such measures could improve life for Canadians, almost everything is framed in the context of the government's failings, which is his comfort zone.

While that message would no doubt have been modified if Mr. Rae had sought to keep his job in the contest that ends this weekend, there is only so much optimistic vision he could sell. Acerbic by nature, battle-scarred from his difficult run as Ontario premier (his one experience in government), he is tough and savvy and someone to be slightly afraid of crossing. A cheery purveyor of hope who can strike a contrast to Mr. Harper, which is what the Liberals seem to think they need, he is not.

Of course, it may not have been such analysis that dissuaded Mr. Rae from trying to keep his job; he realized, he said, it was the best way of bringing his troubled party together.

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He allowed himself a little pride at having succeeded on that front, and perhaps at having shown how opposition is done in the process. "I really feel – and I think the party feels this, and I think there are other Canadians who feel this – that I've made a contribution," he said. "I don't think it's, you know, you've had a silly title for two years and now you're off the stage. I think I've made a difference. And that's a good feeling."

It will no doubt feel even better if he finds, before too long, that he helped pave the way for his successor to oust the government he thinks should have been gone a long time ago.

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