I just finished watching tonight's Mercer Report, which featured Rick Mercer on a fishing trip with Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae. I figure that this is as good an excuse as any to attempt to reflect a bit on Rae's candidacy for the leadership of the federal Liberal party.
Let me start off by saying that Rae's performance (aside from his skinny-dipping finale) on the Mercer Report was a dud. He had ample opportunity to present himself as witty and charming, and get off a few fun one-liners. At a minimum, he could have presented some good answers to Mercer's questions about his political past. He should have known those questions were coming, and prepared appropriately. In my opinion, he didn't. What follows are some initial reflections on the Mercer-Rae exchange, and what I think are the bigger questions about Rae's candidacy.1. On his Ontario legacy
: Rick Mercer asked Bob Rae about his political baggage from being premier of Ontario, and I think Rae tried to duck the question. Pressed further, he muttered something about the province having been in a recession. He also tried to pretend that the issue didn't matter to the voters - and I'll give Mercer credit for pointing out that it does.
Here's my thinking on this dilemma. As someone who was in high school and university when he was in office, even I think Rae's years as NDP premier of the province is a problem spot for him - and I wasn't even in the workforce. Pulling an ostrich on this issue isn't the way to manage this question. Talking about the recession problem is a good start, but Rae needs to go further and try to demonstrate why the policies his government followed to cope with that crisis were ultimately good ones for the province - if he can. He should be trying to take advantage of the fact that a decade has passed since his term in office to convince voters that they need to re-evaluate the alternatives that his government faced, and put the best spin on the decisions he made as possible. He should also run against the Mike Harris legacy - show how much worse
things were under the Conservative governments that succeeded him, when they had the benefit of a stronger economy. If Rae can't defend his Ontario record forcefully, he shouldn't be gunning for the big job.2. On a non-ideological government
: When asked by Mercer why he wanted to be Prime Minister, Rae seemed cagey, and tried to speak about a desire to move away from "ideological government". This was pretty vague, and when pressed, he spoke more forcefully about the need to move away from a conservative ideology in politics on issues like "same sex" something-or-other.An aside here. Rae has some answering to do on the same-sex issue himself. His administration, having introduced legislation on same-sex spousal benefits, failed to push this through the legislature when it had a majority, and refused to impose party discipline. Will this be how Rae leads the Liberal party on issues of principle?
Back to the main point. Running on the politics of pragmatism doesn't really phase me. But I think Rae should have been clearer in that forum on what issues he is running for - which he does on his website
. Mercer offered him a free opportunity to promote himself, and Rae failed to seize it. And before I'm hit with a deluge of pro-Rae bloggers pointing out various points of Rae's agenda and in which forums Rae has clarified his policy positions, I'll concede that he may well have done so. He just didn't in this particular case, and came off as wishy-washy. Can Rae win a federal election?
Much ink has been spilled and many pixels have been darkened on the question of whether Ontarians will "forgive" Rae and vote for him. His detractors believe that his years as NDP premier are like an albatross that will follow him around forever. I'm not completely convinced of that. Ultimately, elections come down to making choices between imperfect options. Rae would not only be campaigning against his past, he would be campaigning against Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. The more important question to be asking is whether voters would be willing to risk a "wiser and more seasoned new" Bob Rae over Harper's established record - and I suspect that when faced with that choice, Rae might seem more appealing. He will not be running against a hypothetical Harper government (as Paul Martin was this winter), but against one that has had some time to implement policies (and make mistakes). That should help him.
What about his left flank? Can Rae pull back the disaffected left wing of the Liberal party? Again, I think there is serious growth potential for him here. Left-wingers in this country seem to be more driven right now by anti-Harperism and opposition to Conservative policies than by a love of Jack Layton and the NDP. Ontarians, in particular, like to vote for a party that is likely to form government and serve their interests. If Rae can position himself as the left-of-centre Liberal leader - and viable PM - this might serve him very well in Ontario in terms of winning back some of the voters who opted for the NDP in 2006.
And what about the rest of the country? Is Rae viable outside of his home province? I suspect that he's got a decent shot in the Western Canadian provinces that have social-democratic leanings and have historically elected pragmatic NDP governments - Manitoba, Saskatchewan and BC. I'd wager that his NDP past won't necessarily be held against him in large swaths of these provinces. I'm not an expert on current voter mood in those regions, but I suspect this would be the case.
Rae's bilingualism will help him campaign in Quebec, although he's going to need to be more specific about his vision of Canadian federalism. Rae has spoken about drug care plans and post-secondary education investment, and I'm not sure that big new nationally-run programs are going to sell well in Quebec. I'd like to see him flesh out his "creative federalism"
in more substantive detail. What role does he see the federal government playing in the development and administration of these programs? Does he see this as a funding role, or would Ottawa be setting priorities as well?
Rae is pushing the equalization role of the federal government in a big way, and that will go over well in Atlantic Canada. I think that this might be key to reconciling the differing needs and wants of Atlantic Canada and Quebec vis-a-vis the role of the federal government. If a Rae-led Liberal party develops a platform of having the federal government play the role of redistributor of tax revenue among the provinces, but doesn't impose itself into provincial jurisdiction, it can meet a greater array of interests. Ottawa's civil servants and politicians won't get the glory, but neither will they alienate voters who believe that the provincial governments should play the roles assigned to them under the constitution.
Rae would also do well to play up his post-Ontario government experiences, in particular his work with government commissions and the types of recommendations he has developed. Canadians need to see how his politics have evolved over the past decade, and understand why it is that a former NDP premier is now seeking to head the federal Liberals.
In short, I think Rae has a significant challenge to face in overcoming the general sense of dissatisfaction associated with his years as Ontario premier, but I also this is not an insurmountable task, particularly if he shows a greater willingness to confront his naysayers directly and with appropriate evidence.
I think that's enough for one evening. I'll try to put up a similar post about Stéphane Dion in the coming weeks, as he is the other serious candidate in the race who might be able to convince me to vote Liberal again.