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Should Rae have his day as Liberal leader?

The verdict on Twitter and the blogs was emphatic: Bob Rae's speech to the Liberal caucus Wednesday was an unofficial declaration that the interim Liberal leader wants the permanent job and is already campaigning for it. That is certainly how it sounded to these ears.

There are powerful arguments for and against that candidacy. So as Liberals descend on Ottawa for this weekend's policy conference, here is an argument for why Bob Rae should not become Liberal leader, and another for why he should.

Should not:

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Mr. Rae devoted a fair chunk of a speech supposedly intended to rally the troops to defending his record as Ontario premier. He knows that if he wins the leadership job, the Conservatives will make that record the centrepiece of their attack on him.

During the former NDP premier's tenure at Queen's Park, Ontario's debt exploded. A bevy of irksome laws and rules – remember photo radar? – infuriated voters. Much of the cabinet was incompetent: one minister defended herself from the charge that she had revealed confidential information by claiming the information was false and she had lied. Mr. Rae devoted himself to negotiating the failed Charlottetown accord when he should have been worrying about the economy. He violated collective agreements by forcing public servants to take unpaid time off.

"Better a Rae Day than a Harper lifetime," Mr. Rae offered in defence during his speech. He insisted that his government made important investments in tough economic times. He regrets nothing.

But Ontario voters gave their verdict. Only one in five voted to return the NDP to power in 1995. There is nothing to suggest they've since changed their minds.

Beyond that, Mr. Rae will be 67 when the next election rolls around. The Liberal Party of Canada is searching to renew and rebuild after a decade of decline. Choosing Mr. Rae as leader would be an emphatic case of out with the new and in with the old.


That speech was part of the argument in favour for why he should stay on past 2013. Mr. Rae may be the most effective orator in Canadian politics. He speaks eloquently and with passion and with no need for a Teleprompter.

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The interim leader is an experienced politician who knows his own mind and is comfortable in his own skin – a rare asset in a party that has chosen leaders lacking political judgment three times in a row. Under his watch, fundraising has been going well, the leader's office is running smoothly, the party is performing effectively in the House. It has been a long time since the Liberals' Ottawa operation hummed along this smoothly.

Here's what a Liberal at the convention with a beer in his hand might say: Bob Rae is the only Liberal around who could put up a good fight against Stephen Harper. He has the skill and determination needed to modernize the fundraising operation and repair the damaged riding organizations. At the least, he will push the NDP into the shadows and bring the party back to Official Opposition status in the next election. Then the Liberals can look for someone who can take them to government in 2019.

The alternative is to choose a younger and less experienced leader who could have trouble renewing the party and who could get positively mauled in 2015 by the Conservative machine. For a party in such a fragile condition, it might not be worth the risk.

However, that younger leader, if she hung in there, would be a stronger contender in 2019. Canadians often like to test drive their politicians, handing them defeat in one election before rewarding them with victory in the next one. Think Gary Doer, Dalton McGuinty, Jean Charest. Think Stephen Harper.

This is what the Liberals will be debating among themselves in hospitality suites, hotel corridors and on the convention floor this weekend. With that speech, Mr. Rae has ensured that he will be a big part of that conversation.

Follow John Ibbitson on Facebook and Twitter @JohnIbbitson

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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