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Politics Wanted: a Liberal leader who can grow with the party

For the first time since they lost power 5½ years ago, the federal Liberals have the luxury of time.

Now, they're struggling to figure out how best to use it.

Only the most delusional Liberals deny that a complete reboot is needed if they're to avoid being permanently relegated to third-party status, or worse. Freed from the perpetual election mode forced by minority Parliaments, and in some ways liberated by having been pushed so far away from power, they can no longer trick themselves into believing they're just a couple of tweaks from returning to past glories.

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But just how to rebuild a modern political party is a different matter. And a week after their humiliating election result, the Liberals are already facing a chicken-and-egg debate about where to start.

Weary of the leadership battles and grudges that have dominated their party's affairs for as long as anyone can remember, a growing crowd of Liberals is arguing that picking Michael Ignatieff's long-term replacement should be low on the priority list.

Not since the 1960s, they reason, has the party gone through a serious renewal process. Only once it's decided what it means to be a Liberal in the 21st century - the core values, the differences with other parties, why anyone who doesn't hold a membership should care - should it choose a leader who can embody that new identity. Hence the arguments that the interim leader likely to be selected next week should serve as placeholder for as long as two years.

In principle, that's a difficult argument to oppose. But other Liberals would say it's not entirely practical.

They counter that the identities of modern political parties seem to revolve heavily - in some cases almost exclusively - around the identities of their leaders. And only those leaders have the power and moral authority to bring their fractious memberships together in common purpose.

Both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton have spent the better part of the past decade overhauling their parties according to their own visions and personalities, and the election results speak for themselves. In so doing, they've made a convincing case that a party's culture can very effectively be changed from the top down, rather than the bottom up.

The work was long and painstaking for both Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton. So considering the scale of their next leader's challenge, it's not hard to understand why some Liberals are eager to give him or her as much time as possible.

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This debate - between a renewal process that produces a leader, and a leader who produces a renewal process - could go on endlessly. But there is perhaps a compromise to be found.

A party that gets too specific in crafting an identity, then asks its new leader to embody it, is asking for trouble. Unless he or she played a leading role in the rebuild to begin with - and given the uncertainties of the leadership selection process, there's no guarantee of that - the Liberals could wind up with a very unconvincing salesperson.

But there's also a danger in a leader who claims to have all the answers off the bat, or relies too heavily on personal appeal. As Mr. Ignatieff discovered, the Liberals' cultural problems run far too deep for that.

What the party needs, more than anything, is someone who knows what he or she doesn't know. If not quite a blank slate, the Liberals need someone capable of becoming the embodiment of a multi-year renewal process; who has the self-confidence to lead that process by enlisting the help of a new wave of talent, rather than comfortably falling back on the same circles of elites the Liberals have been relying upon since the Chrétien-Martin era.

The Liberals, in other words, need someone who can grow with their party - a trait distinctly lacking in their recent spate of leaders. Their renewal, if it happens at all, will take at least as long as it took Mr. Harper or Mr. Layton to build what their parties' are today. So when they choose their leader is less important than what sort of leader they choose.

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