NATIONAL

The Great White Hope

Bob Rae wants to take the Liberal leadership, but not by using ideas

JOHN GEDDES October 2 2006
NATIONAL

The Great White Hope

Bob Rae wants to take the Liberal leadership, but not by using ideas

JOHN GEDDES October 2 2006

The Great White Hope

NATIONAL

Bob Rae wants to take the Liberal leadership, but not by using ideas

JOHN GEDDES

The most improbable thing about Bob Rae’s bid for the Liberal leadership isn’t that he had to make a latelife conversion to the party, which he once denounced for its “smugness and complacency.” It isn’t that he is trying to become the first former provincial premier to take over the federal Liberals since Edward Blake in 1880, and the first ever to become prime minister. It isn’t even that, in the process, he must somehow overturn the conventional wisdom that his Ontario NDP government in the early 1990s was a bust. No, the most

unlikely element of Rae’s strategy for upsetting the front-runner, Michael Ignatieff, and holding off the other surging contender, Stéphane Dion, is that he admits he’s not running on his ideas.

In an era when just about every politician with ambition boasts of a vision, a blueprint for transformative change, a new way of doing politics, Rae dismisses all that as unimportant. “It’s not a campaign about ideas,” he told Maclean’s. “You’re electing a leader, you’re not electing an agenda.”

Rae is betting his experience and persona, rather than his platform, will win this for him. He’s satisfied to get party members feeling comfortable with him, unlike his key rivals, who are hoping to excite them. Ignatieff is proposing contentious policies like a carbon

tax and a new round of constitutional negotiations. Dion is all about trying to get Liberals’ policy juices flowing, rattling off precise, lengthy prescriptions on any issue he tackles. Asked what sets him apart from Rae, Dion says, “The contrast is that I am putting out much more concrete ideas and solutions.” That seems to suit Rae just fine. The choice between his ideas-light approach and Dion’s platform-heavy appeal could end up being a pivotal one when the leadership marathon finally wraps up on Dec. 2 at the Liberals’ Montreal convention. Most Liberals assume Ignatieff will enter that convention with the biggest share of locked-in first-ballot support, from delegates who will be elected at the riding level at the so-called “Super Weekend” meetings during the last weekend of this month. Rae, Dion, and former Ontario cabinet minister Gerard Kennedy are expected to jockey for second, third and fourth place. After the first ballot, the big question is which of them has the best chance of overtaking Ignatieff in what’s likely to be a multi-ballot contest.

Kennedy’s energized organization should win him a strong showing on the first ballot. But his weak French is increasingly seen as limiting his upward potential. That leaves Dion and Rae, who both clear the bilingualism bar—though Dion’s English at times demands close attention. So far, though, they’re both aiming mainly at the front-runner rather than each other. At last Sunday’s debate in Vancouver, Dion led an attack on Ignatieff over his Iraq and Afghanistan stands, but it was Rae who landed the most stinging blow. When Ignatieff tried to make the case that he supported ousting Saddam Hussein out of concern for the rights of Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite minorities, Rae shot back: “The issue is, do you stand with George Bush on the issue of Iraq or do you not?”

A frequent refrain in Rae’s speeches is how he knows the country “in his bones.” He reminds Liberals of the pan-Canadian public chores he took on after losing the 1995 Ontario election and exiting politics, from mediating the native fishing dispute at Burnt Church, N.B., to heading the federal review of the Air India bombing investigation. Asked if he’s intentionally suggesting a contrast between his lifetime in Canada and Ignatieff’s decades away in Britain and the U.S., Rae doesn’t deny it. “No more than Ignatieff is contrasting himself with me when he says, ‘Eve been a Liberal all my life,’ ” he says. “What is that all about?”

It doesn’t take Ignatieff, though, to make an issue of the fact that Rae joined the Liberals only shortly before launching his run for its leadership. Rae says he feels “very much a member of the family”—but it sure wasn’t always that way. “There is a smug-

ness and complacency about the Liberal Party of Canada,” he said in his 1996 memoir From Protest to Power, explaining why the party didn’t attract him. Apparently, it took the shock of losing last January’s election to wipe that smug, complacent look off the Liberal party’s collective face sufficiently for Rae, who quit the NDP in 2002, to come around. He says defeat left the party “facing a moment of self-definition.”

The same might be said of Rae—or at least that he is trying to define himself in the eyes of Liberals. Rae’s rhetoric is restrained and his policy message often comes across as an afterthought. He has a platform, of course.

HE ONCE CALLED THE PARTY SMUG AND COMPLACENT, BUT FEELS ‘VERY MUCH A MEMBER OF THE FAMILY’ NOW

On the economy, he favours “lower income taxes, a simpler and greener tax system, competitive corporate taxes”—positions that might be aimed at reassuring those leery of his NDP past. His calls for more emphasis on education, research and green infrastructure are middle-of-the-road Liberal fare. On health, he focuses on a pitch for a national catastrophic drug plan. On Afghanistan, his tone is skeptical, but he calls for clarifying NATO’s aims, rather than a Canadian pullout.

Yet he’s remarkably blunt in declaring that all this is really beside the real point. Choos-

ing a leader isn’t about ideas, he declares, as much as finding “a person you’re comfortable with.” His hope for a second political life rests on selling himself as a moderate guy who has seen it all and knows better than to make dumb mistakes. He has a model in mind: his late friend Robert Bourassa, who was widely reviled when his first run as Quebec premier ended in 1976, but who returned to power in 1983—recast in the imaginations of Quebecers as a thoughtful veteran. “He concentrated on his experience,” Rae says, “what he’d learned while he was away, thinking and writing and travelling.” Bourassa managed to make voters rethink their view

of his first government as incompetent, even corrupt. Rae needs to erase memories of his as a deficit-spinning disaster. He argues that just about everything that went wrong was the result of a punishing recession.

“The big change in my life wasn’t going from being a New Democrat to being a Liberal,” he says. “The big change was from being in opposition and being in government. It made me think about politics in a different way—the need to get to solutions, the need to set priorities. When you’re in opposition you can say all sort of things.” Which might explain why Rae isn’t saying all sorts of things to win over Liberals—hoping just being who he has become will prove to be enough. M