Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fourth Horseman decides to postpone the Liberal Apocalypse...

Yes, Bob Rae made the right decision yesterday when he announced he won't be a candidate for the permanent leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. It was right for him and right for the party.

In my humble opinion, had Rae taken the reins of the federal Grits, after promising he wouldn't seek the job, his tenure would have resembled that of Michael Ignatieff, Stephane Dion and Paul Martin. It would've led to disappointment and further collapse of the federal Grits, continuing a pattern started under Martin, accelerated under Dion and driven into overdrive by Ignatieff.

Between Harper seeking another mandate in 2015 and Tom Mulcair leading a more moderate and savvy NDP, I believe a Rae-led Liberal Party would've seen its vote share shrink even further from the pathetic 19% it got in 2011. Ontario swing voters would've had little difficulty abandoning the Grits led by a largely ineffective former NDP premier. Such a result would be disastrous in the one province where the federal Grits still have considerable growth potential. It would've cemented the permanent decline of the party and turned Canada into a largely two-party system polarized between conservatives and social democrats like in Great Britain and most of the Western world.

But instead Rae showed wisdom and decided to spare himself and the Liberal Party such a terrible fate. He surely didn't fancy a political swan song like that of Joe Clark's doomed 2000 election debacle.

I'm also glad the Liberal Party will now be able to move beyond the terrible legacy of the 2006 leadership race. That race was thrust on Liberals after the resignation of the first Horseman of the Liberal Apocalypse, Paul Martin, who forced out a popular PM and replaced him with dithering and unimpressive leadership. Martin's reign as PM was built largely on Canadian mistrust of alleged Conservative extremism. When Stephen Harper convinced Canadians he really wasn't all that scary, they turfed Martin the first chance they got.

In the ensuing leadership race in 2006, Liberals were almost forced to choose between two deeply flawed frontrunners, both with the shallowest of shallow roots in the country and/or the party: Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Iggy had spent his entire adult life outside the country and had been a supporter of the Iraq war, while Rae was a NDP turncoat who had never broken a sweat (at that point) on behalf of Liberals anywhere. (As we know, Rae's since gone on to much admirable work on behalf of his new party.) But in 2006, the party elite decided to hoist these two gentlemen on the party's members, thinking we'd lay down and play dead.

But I, like most party members, were not going to be forced to choose between Iggy and Rae. Instead, we decided to seek an alternative. Sadly, that alternative was Stephane Dion. I argued, at the time, that Dion had been such an effective cabinet minister that surely he'd have the ability to grow into a great leader. But no. Dion's pathetic communication skills, and his political tone deafness sealed his fate long before his disastrous 2008 election run. As such, Dion became the Second Horseman of the Liberal Apocalypse. The Liberals slid to their worst showing ever in the popular vote with just 26%.

Next, the party elites against whom the party members had so successfully revolted two years earlier argued that democracy had wronged the party and now was the time to simply appoint the best candidate for the leadership. Ignatieff moved in for the kill by insisting on seizing the interim leadership in late 2008 in a caucus coup, pushing aside both Rae and Dominic Leblanc. Party elites probably felt they had corrected the great error of 2006. But the joke was on them, as we saw so clearly in 2011 when their chosen Saviour led the Liberals to their worst showing ever with just 19% of the vote and 34 seats. Yes, Iggy was the Third Horseman of the Liberal Apocalypse.

Soon thereafter, it seemed that Bob Rae had decided to take a page from Iggy's book and seize the leadership himself. Granted, Rae is the most qualified person in that tiny caucus to lead the party in the interim. But for the last year, it seemed that Rae had done so merely to, once again, push aside other contenders for the Liberal leadership and finally win the prize he so coveted. Had it come to pass, Rae would've been the Fourth Horseman of the Liberal Apocalypse and led the party in 2015 to its destruction (or at least so low in the vote and in seat totals it would simply never be able to recover as a potent force in federal politics again, kind of like Britain's Liberals.)

I can write now that I am very pleasantly surprised and relieved that Rae chose to step back from the cliff. Now instead of waiting for the Liberal Apocalypse in 2015, we can begin the process of renewal, contemplating what young, bright, energetic fighter will now step forward over the next several months now that the field is open. Yes, the federal Liberals may just live to fight another day and that is good news for Canadian democracy.

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