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Hill Dispatches: Bob Rae and the Liberal identity crisis

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A lonesome figure stands at the top of an escalator on the first day of the Liberal convention handing out a homemade one-page leaflet. His message: no truck or trade, no negotiations -- and absolutely no merger! -- with the New Democrats.

Most delegates ignore him -- not because they might favour such a merger. They simply have better things to do, and the leaflet-er just seems to be another of the usual crop of zealots and cranks looking for a platform that these events inevitably attract.

One well-dressed, older gentlemen does stop to chat for a moment.

"I thought we had put that idea to bed," the natty delegate says. "It's off the agenda isn't it?"

"Well, there was a senator who spoke this morning who brought it up again!" the leaflet-er replies. "We've got to nip this sort of thing in the bud, and make sure it doesn't go anywhere!"

Liberal-New Democrat relationship

Most delegates weren't talking about it explicitly, but the relationship with the NDP was an important subtext of this past weekend's Liberal convention.

This was the first major gathering for Liberals since the party assumed its unaccustomed third-place status last May. Back in 1984, the party only got five seats more than it now has, but it kept Official Opposition status, then, and was still in solid second-place and well ahead of the NDP in popular vote.

The 2011 election produced a result in which the Liberals have no regional stronghold.

They are not only in third-place overall, they are behind the NDP in virtually every province and region, including Ontario, where, as recently as the 1990s they were winning almost all the seats.

For a party that has always been more about the opportunities of power than the imperatives of principle, the current state of play presents a true existential crisis.

If the Conservatives are the party of the free-market above all, and the NDP the champions of social justice, what are the Liberals?

Are they the Goldilocks party?

The neither-here-nor-there party?

Here's how interim leader Bob Rae put it in his closing address to the delegates on Sunday:

"We are pragmatic, reasonable people; we don't have theories or ideologies rattling around in our heads preventing us from dealing with the real concerns of Canadians."

Rae is such a good speaker that he managed to make those uninspired sentiments sound almost stirring.

But will Canadians be willing to dig into their pockets and contribute serious money in the cause of calculated pragmatism?

Are the Liberals really moving left?

Right-of-centre commentators complain that Rae is moving the Liberal Party to the left.

There was no talk of tax cuts or promoting entrepreneurialism or fiscal discipline at the convention, one of those commentators complains. All the policy talk at the convention was about the "soft," "human" side of the agenda: health care, the environment, diversity.

Even when Rae evoked a record to defend, if not celebrate, it was not the Martin-Chrétien tough-on-deficits record, it was his own record, as an NDP premier of Ontario.

Delegates who had attended the 2006 convention that chose charisma-challenged Stéphane Dion as leader must have had a hard time applauding Rae's defence of the Ontario New Democratic government's record!

In 2006, more than a few of the Liberal delegates were heard to mutter that the "socialist" Rae, who had defeated their own David Peterson in 1990, could never be allowed to lead their Liberal party.

Now, though, if the party wants to consider Rae as permanent leader, it will have to confront the issue of the Ontario NDP record. They know the Conservatives already have their attack ads ready and waiting.

Harper's deficits worse than Rae's?

Still, Rae's defence of his 1990 to 1995 Ontario government was a little odd.

Rather than point out the fact that Ontario's economy was buffeted during the 1990s by the harsh impact of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, by Bank of Canada Governor John Crow's punishing interest rates and by cuts in federal transfers that particularly targeted Ontario, Rae's main point was that Harper's deficits are worse than his were.

This is where the Liberals can be too clever by half.

At times, in an effort to find that elusive "middle," they can come down, literally, on both sides of an issue.

Remember this: late in 2008, when Conservative Finance Minister Flaherty presented a fiscal update that essentially denied the existence of a severe recession and promised not a penny of stimulus spending, the Liberals were outraged and vowed to vote against it, regardless of the consequences.

Harper saved his skin and headed off the coalition-ready opposition with a constitutionally-dubious prorogation. In the actual budget that followed a few months later, Flaherty bowed to Liberal and New Democratic pressure and included a significant dose of counter-cyclical spending, which, of course, produced the first of a series of fiscal deficits.

Had the Liberals been in power they would have done much the same thing. It is disingenuous, at best, to argue for spending stimulus, on the one hand, and cavil about the inevitable resulting deficits, on the other.

Pragmatic or schizoid?

The Liberals portray their approach as being "not too hot/not too cold," "not too hard/not too soft," but just right -- somewhere in the pragmatic, reasonable "middle," where most Canadians are.

But if one were to be uncharitable, the party's contradictory attitudes sometimes reveal a political personality that seems not so much pragmatic as schizoid.

William James was the first to use the terms "pragmatism" and "pragmatic" in public discourse, more than a hundred years ago. But that quintessentially American philosopher was also a medical doctor and one of the founders of the modern science of psychology.

James probably wouldn't appreciate the way "pragmatism," which started out as a rather rigorous logical theory of truth, has been transformed into something approaching a euphemism for opportunism.

He would also likely have interesting observations of the Liberals' split personality.

The Liberals had their progressive face on this past weekend.

However, that is only one face of the Liberal party.

The Liberal party, in power from 1993 to 2006, had a rather different face.

The actual Liberal record in government

The Liberals are the party that took health and social transfers to the provinces to their lowest level in half a century.

They are the party that, once the economy started to grow, decided that a high priority was to cut corporate taxes. Of the $120 billion in federal revenue redirected to corporate profits through federal corporate income tax cuts since 2000, $100 billion are the responsibility of the Liberals!

The Liberals of the 1990s wouldn't consider throwing the beleaguered Rae NDP government a lifeline, even though they knew that in the event of a national unity crisis they could count on the Ontario Premier's eloquence, bilingualism and unwavering commitment to Canada. Instead, Liberal insiders of that time mocked Bob Rae for having "cleaning ladies" in his cabinet.

And, of course, the Liberals are the party that twice rejected that one-time "socialist" Rae because many suspected he was an "orange" wolf in "red" sheep's clothing.

Politics as a performing art

Today, there is something about Rae that makes his leadership very useful to the Liberal party, in its current dilemma.

It is often said that politics is a team sport. True enough. But politics is also one of the performing arts.

No objective observer could argue that either Stéphane Dion or Michael Ignatieff had anywhere near the political performance skills of Bob Rae. Yet the party opted to snub the former NDP premier when they had a chance to choose him in 2006, and again in 2009.

Now, the Liberals are desperate and they really need Rae's acknowledged political talents -- although the famous Liberal factions are already starting to reconstitute themselves and will likely be on full display by the time of the actual leadership race a year from now.

For the time being, Rae's comfortable way with words and easy sense of humour were fully evident this past weekend.

The public, official version of Rae's prepared remarks for the closing of the convention include a nuanced recognition that "while the convention didn't adopt every one of the changes proposed, let us be clear: the Liberal party is open, transparent, and part of a movement." In other words, the party accepted the idea of allowing "supporters" as well as members to take part in choosing the leader; but it rejected the proposal of an American-style primary system.

The public version of the remarks do not, however, include what has become a much-quoted Rae ad lib -- something to the effect that everyone would now be "a lot happier" with the passing of the marijuana resolution.

Having more or less blurted this out, the Liberal interim leader realized that he had opened the door on a controversial issue, and so decided to keep the ad lib going and make the best of the situation -- in for a penny, in for a pound, as it were. He went on to articulately denounce the failed "war on drugs," while  being careful not to unalterably tie himself to an idea he had earlier opposed -- the idea of legalizing pot.

Rae accomplished this rhetorical legerdemain without awkwardness, hesitation or confusion.

Indeed, Rae's comfort with himself and his capacity to think on his feet and speak spontaneously with authority and with what always seems to be candour is his greatest strength. It is a skill in which his predecessor was almost totally lacking.

Just imagine that it had been Rae not Ignatieff in the hot seat during the last campaign's leaders' debate when Jack Layton threw out the issue of his poor attendance record. Do you think Rae would have stood there, numb and tongue-tied, like a deer in the headlights?

We'll never know.

However, some Liberals must now be asking themselves: "what were we thinking?" when they made the leadership choices they did in 2006 and 2009.

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