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Would you buy RC Cola from Bob Rae?

Stephen Gowans

george Carlin, the irreverent American comedian, has a routine about types of idiots. What differentiates them is appearance, he says. Some look like idiots, while some look quite intelligent, like the guy who speaks authoritatively on financial planning, but sinks all of his money into Nortel shares.

You may have met people like that. They drone on and on, using words like "paradigm" and "fundamentally," and then give themselves away with something like, "Reagan's black and white view of the world was the kind of genius the world needed at the time." You smile politely, thinking, "Wow, he looks smart, but he's a complete moron."

That's what I'm starting to wonder about Bob Rae, former NDP premier of Ontario, and Rhodes Scholar. For all that he appears to have a head on his shoulders, is Rae really a complete moron?

What's got me wondering this is an article Rae wrote in The Globe and Mail, titled, Beat the Liberals at their game, in which he explains to the NDP how to unseat the federal Liberals from what seems to be their role as "natural" governing party. The same Bob Rae who, as NDP premier of Ontario, tried to beat the provincial Liberals and Tories at their own game, and ended up...well, writing op-ed pieces for The Globe and Mail.

How he made the transition from the province's leader to Globe and Mail gas-bag is a tale of how someone who looks smart, made a complete botch up, as complete morons (even those with a stint at Oxford) often do. I just wish Rae would admit his mistake, and move on, instead of urging others to follow in his footsteps.

Rae's woes began the moment he was elected premier and realized he had to represent everyone. This isn't something his predecessors had done, their political loyalties extending no further than their financial backers on Bay St.

"Everyone" in Rae's case, turned out to mean, everyone but the people who put him in office, the complete opposite of the way every other premier had looked at it. Result: By the end of his first term, the party's traditional base of support was completely alienated.

And the corporate leaders and right wing voters he tried to suck up to were no happier, having long ago decided that if you're a meat-eater, you don't settle for Tofurkey on Thanksgiving, no matter how diligently the tofu is made to look like the real thing.

If given a choice between Coke and RC Cola, most people take Coke. Rae, Rhodes Scholar, never figured that out.

Instead, Rae figured he had the backing of his party's traditional supporters, by default. Who else were they going to vote for? This was kind of like announcing to loyal 7-Up drinkers that from now on, 7-Up is going to be like Coke. "Won't our customers abandon the brand?" worried party strategists must have asked. "Of course not," an intelligent-looking Rae must have replied. "What alternative have they -- Coke?"

Well, yes, as it turned out. Better the Real Thing than RC (Rae's Counterfeit) Cola, the thinking went.

The former choice turned out to be far more palatable to many traditional NDP supporters, who chose the Liberal's and Tory's Coke to Rae's RC Cola. Indeed, one of the party's largest union backers, the CAW, reasoned that if given a choice between Coke and RC Cola, what difference did it make which you drank? Vote strategically, the union recommended. Or don't vote at all.

As to province's non-partisan voters, Rae said they should vote for him, because he was smarter than the other candidates.

The voters, apparently, disagreed. Rae was unceremoniously dumped, his party decimated, the real Liberals took up the Opposition benches, and the way was paved for Mike Harris's common sense revolutionaries to infest Queen's Park.

As for Rae, he took up residence as The Globe and Mail's resident NDP-chide, scolding his former colleagues for any deviation from the tried and true path to failure of out-Liberaling the Liberals.

As Carlin would say, "He looks smart, but...".

Part of looking smart is treating politics as a team sport. According to the Rae doctrine, the entire object of politics is to beat the other team, and if that means moving to the centre, as a hockey team tries to dominate centre ice (Rae really uses this analogy, showing that even when it comes to hockey, he's a complete moron) then that's what you do. This, of course, from a man whose electoral smarts are well-established -- not.

This reminds me of a friend of mine who says he's an ardent Canadiens fan, and always has been. Through thick and thin he supports his beloved Habs. And he doesn't live in Montreal. He doesn't even live in Quebec. Never has. So what hold do the Habs have on him?

I think it's the reflected prestige of the team's glory days. The winningest team in NHL history. A storied franchise. A strong tradition. This is like being an Anglophile because Britain was once the world's winningest empire, overlooking the fact that it is now, as ever, a sordid place, riven by class and ethnic hatred, that has replaced its former imperial glory with an unseemly eagerness to toady to the new Empire -- the United States.

But what is a team but a collection of players, who happen to wear the same colours as another collection of players did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that? The Montreal Canadiens of last year, wasn't the Montreal Canadiens of the Ken Dryden-Guy Lafleur era. Check the stats.

So why would I pledge allegiance to a name and team-colors when what really counts is who's on the player's bench and who's behind it?

Yet Rae wants us to believe that all that matters is what a team's name is, and whether it wins the game, er...election. Not what its policies are. Or, more to the point, despite what its policies are.

These days, when Rae isn't upset about the NDP's Svend Robinson criticizing Israel for massacring Palestinians at the Jenin refugee camp (to point out Israeli war-crimes amounts to taking an "unbalanced" approach to the Middle East, it seems), he's all wrought up about left-wing voters in France not voting for his French soul-mate, Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who was forced out in the first round of France's presidential voting. For their lese-majesty against good sense, (as Rae would have it), France's most famous bigot, Jean Marie Le Pen, finished second. Now, France's progressive voters will have to vote for Jacques Chirac -- kind of like having to settle for a Coke because the RC Cola machine is on the blink. C'est domage!

Ah, see, you twerps on the left, Rae says to himself with unconcealed glee behind the walls of his tony (Tory?) Bay Street office. Had you voted for Jospin, rather than (Rae's words) "an astonishing variety of left-wing fragments (that) completely divided the so-called progressive vote" you could have had Jospin, just as Ontario's voters could have had me as premier again rather than that mean old Mike Harris.

Only looking smart is perhaps the reason Rae missed an obvious question. Why was there was an astonishing variety of left-wing contenders to Jospin in the first place? As one French voter said: "I'm not interested in a politician of the left who carries out the policies of the right." Strange, wasn't the same said about a one-term NDP premier of Ontario?

Undeterred by failure, Rae presses on. "Every social democratic formation in the Western world," he writes, "has undergone dramatic change. These changes have been based on the conclusion that, to borrow from Winston Churchill, capitalism is the worst economic system except for all others."

So, social democracy, which was born as an alternative to capitalism to be achieved through the gradual accumulation of reforms, has become capitalism itself. Not quite the Indian rope trick, but close. Atheism becomes Pat Robertson's old time religion. And there's Rae, standing outside the church doors, splendidly adorned in his vestments, urging all the atheists in. C'mon in, atheists. We can't let Reverend Patterson of the United Church down the street accumulate a bigger flock of parishioners. We'll beat the Christians by being more Christian than they are!

This, then, raises another question: If those on the left are presumably interested in an alternative to capitalism, or at the very least, a capitalism reformed along democratic and egalitarian lines (if that's not a contradiction) why ever would progressive voters vote for a party that offers no such alternative? Simply because it's wearing the old team's colours? Isn't that like inviting atheists into the church?

Of course, progressive voters aren't voting for the "social democratic formations that have undergone dramatic change" even if the jerseys are the same, no matter how thoroughly a smart-looking Bob Rae whines about it on the pages of The Globe and Mail.

True, in places like Saskatchewan, where there's no tradition of a strong centre party, voters have elected the NDP, but an NDP that offers the social democracy of the Rae stripe -- Christianity for atheists, featuring a nicer version of Jesus than the Roman Catholics offer.

But where strong centre parties exists, a crowd-the-centre approach has failed, and the result is that a variety of left fragments has sprung up to fill the vacuum left by NDP strategists who play politics as a team game.

Rae laments that if France's progressive voters hadn't thrown their votes away on dozens of left candidates, Jospin would have won. In other words, there are enough people in France looking for a left-wing alternative, that had they united behind one candidate, the left would have prevailed. That seems to be at odds with the view that the electorate isn't interested in an unequivocally left platform, a position Rae often takes to justify the NDP moving to the centre.

Clearly, however, what France's progressive voters weren't looking for is Jospin's and Rae's, "capitalism may be bad, but it's better than the alternatives" approach, an approach that is suspiciously like the platform Rae adopted in his last ill-fated election campaign: "I might be bad," he admitted, "but I'm better than the alternatives."

He didn't sell the electorate on that one, either.

RC cola anyone?

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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