Bob Rae

Canadians watching the Democrat debacle south of the Medicine Line may have been struck by a smoky whiff of something unpleasant but faintly familiar hanging over the wreckage of the House of Representatives last night.

Could it have been a faint miasma of Bob Rae Syndrome, a sometimes fatal condition that strikes progressive politicians, causing them to abandon their loyal supporters to suck up to their implacable foes?

The results of this condition really should be included in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, not long after the next American presidential election.

Rae, as keen observers of the Ontario political scene will recall, was a shrewd political operator and fine orator elected as the New Democratic premier of Ontario in 1990. Alas, he succumbed not long after to the then-unnamed condition, which prompted a variety of bizarre behaviours, including forgetting his promise to introduce government-run auto insurance, introducing Tory-style “austerity” measures in the face of a recession and implementing the repugnant “social contract” that allowed his government to wiggle out of signed contracts with its public employees.

For this, Rae received no thanks and no support from whomever it was he was trying to impress on the right. The NDP was slaughtered in the 1993 provincial election. Having abandoned its supporters, they returned the favour. Rae was succeeded by the odious Mike Harris, but before long he resurfaced as a Liberal Member of Parliament in Ottawa, proving that some political failures have the half-life of a plutonium isotope.

Now a form of the same condition seems to have struck the appealing Barack Obama, likewise a shrewd political operator and fine orator with progressive instincts, elected as U.S. President amid such high hopes two years ago. The pattern of decline is familiar, as is the frightening long-term diagnosis: Ignore your supporters in their hour of need, adopt polices that give succor to your most determined enemies, affect astonishment when your base can’t be bothered to struggle out to the polls.

Obama’s abandonment of struggling U.S. mortgage-holders while propping up the banks that would boot them into the streets perfectly illustrates this condition, and yesterday’s mid-term electoral results highlight the tragic effect of BRS on a nation’s body politic.

Thankfully, the American polity is a profound and mysterious pool, and presidents have recovered from deeper straits than Obama, among them Harry Truman in recent times and Abraham Lincoln, who appeared doomed in the summer of 1864, but who was re-elected in a landslide thanks to the great military victories of Generals Grant and Sherman.

Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that a similar recovery awaits Obama.

If it is to do so, however, he will need to imitate the action of a leader like FDR, and not a poseur like Norma Bob Rae, and work for his supporters, not against them.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...