Friday, March 21, 2008

The Return of Bob Rae

When I began this venture a year and a half ago, I suggested in one of my first posts that the Liberal Party should choose Bob Rae as its next leader. Obviously, they did not heed my counsel. But, like a lot of Canadians, I was willing to give Stephane Dion a chance to re-create the Liberals. His efforts to date have not been impressive. However, Mr. Rae's arrival on the Opposition front benches may give the party the real world and rhetorical skills Dion lacks -- not to mention a sense of genuine wit.

Rae is not without his faults. As a teacher in Ontario during his time in power, I worked my share of "Rae Days" without pay. And, for that, Rae was despised by a majority of Ontarians. I never felt that way about the man -- although I should confess that I didn't vote for him. Nor did I vote for the man who succeeded him. But I was taken with Rae's idea that it was better to lose pay than a job. And, while the central premise of his approach to the recession of the early nineties was to share the pain, it was not a popular message. Voters want politicians to relieve their pain, not spread it around. Unfortunately, while Rae himself was one of the most gifted politicians of his generation, his cabinet lacked depth. They simply did not inspire public confidence. The combination of an unpopular message and a weak cabinet doomed Rae. He is still one of this country's most able politicians. The difference this time is that he adds considerable strength to the Liberal bench.

Rae will be a target for the Conservatives. Jim Flaherty, the Minister of Finance -- and Ontario's former finance minister -- will remind the public that Rae's tenure coincided with hard times. But Rae did not instigate those times. And, sticking to the playbook he used when he was in charge of this province's finances, Flaherty has chided premier Dalton McGuinty for not cutting taxes on business. He will fulminate, claiming the federal Liberals are as incompetent as their provincial cousins. But he conveniently ignores the fact that the downturn in the United States has dried up demand for Ontario products -- particularly automobiles. Cutting taxes will increase the supply of goods. But, if the public cannot afford to buy what you make, all you will do is stock your warehouses and fill your parking lots.

Mr. Flaherty's panacea comes at a time when the whole supply side experiment has proved to be, literally, bankrupt. E. J. Dionne, in The Washington Post last week, offered an accurate evaluation of the economic policies of the last thirty years: "Never do I want to hear again from my conservative friends," he wrote, "about how brilliant capitalists are, and how much they deserve their seven figure-salaries and how government should keep its hands off the private economy." For now that it has all blown up in their faces, "they are desperate to be bailed out by government from their own incompetence and from the deregulatory regime for which they lobbied so hard."

Mr. Rae will be quite prepared to make that argument; and, when Mr. Flaherty pushes back, Rae will remind Canadians that the man who railed against debt left Ontarians a five and a half billion dollar deficit. Mr. Flaherty's stewardship of the economy was no brief, shining moment. And, as a lawyer, he will be remembered for his proposal to deal with the homeless by sweeping them off the streets and housing them in jail for the night.

I used to work for a man who was fond of saying that "stupidity is its own curse." I have no idea who will win the next election -- it is too soon to tell. But I suspect that, when it comes to stupidity, Mr Rae will draw public attention to it, eloquently and in two languages.

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