10/03/2012 08:15 EDT | Updated 12/03/2012 05:12 EST

Liberals: Don't Rally Around a Sprinter, We're in a Marathon


Following their party's historic defeat in the 2011 federal election, Liberals made a pledge to focus on rebuilding the party from the ground up and not to give in to the notion that a messiah exists who is capable of single-handedly saving the party.

It is essential, now that the Grit leadership race is getting underway, that Liberals honour this promise. Liberals should select their next leader keeping in mind the following difficult but unavoidable truth: The Liberal Party of Canada will not win the 2015 federal election.

In last year's election, 20.7 percentage points in popular vote separated the Liberals from the Conservatives. Never in the history of federal politics in Canada has a party overcome such a deficit to take power in a single election. And let's not forget to mention that the NDP needs to be taken into the equation as well, seeing as it too is currently ranked ahead of the Grits in popular support.

As a result, the Liberals are likely looking at two to three election cycles -- a full decade worth of rebuilding -- before the process of growing the party is rendered complete. This process begins now, however, and mistakes early on may prove to be irreparable.

Since Liberals must be in it for the long haul if they wish to succeed, the next leader's most important task is coming up with a concrete plan simply to move the yardsticks forward in 2015. Accordingly, anyone serious about becoming leader must answer two questions that relate to how the party will take its first big steps in rebuilding.

First, "What constitutes a Liberal vision for Canada in the 21st century?" The answer to this question must contain two components. First off, it must concretely demonstrate what is unique about the Liberal Party when contrasted with the Tories and Dippers.

It is not enough to say that both parties in the Conservative-NDP debate over the oil sands are wrong and that the Liberals will offer some intermediate position, for this would be to allow the political poles to define the framework for this country's political and economic discussion. Liberals need to reframe this discussion completely.

In addition, this vision must turn the Liberal brand into one of "straight talk." The Grits must become a party that demolishes the myths of the left and right and tells taxpayers what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. Liberal leadership candidates must back up the claim that they support evidence-based policy with substance.

The second question is, "What is your plan to revitalize the party's operational capabilities?" Candidates best positioned to be leader will be ones that not only will have concrete proposals for engaging riding associations, raising more money and possibly altering the party's structure, but also will demonstrate resilience and a clear ability to stay on message.

There were many reasons the Grits lost last year's election, but one of them was that the party had no overarching, clear message to repeat to voters. The Tories did: "stability (a Conservative majority government) vs. chaos (a 'reckless' coalition of left-wing parties), and the economy in the balance."

The Tories won the election: They had a clear message and the financial and organizational means to repeat it over and over again in multiple venues not only during the writ period, but for years preceding it. A Liberal leadership candidate who demonstrates both a plan for achieving such strength for the party and who shows that he or she is able to communicate effectively is one that must be tested.

Which brings me back to my original point of there being no messiah for the Liberal Party. The worst thing the Grits could do right now is to rally en masse around any one candidate for leader early in the race and not give this candidate a chance to prove his or her worth.

Public criticism emanating from the grassroots as well as between candidates for the leadership must be embraced, for through it the party's next leader will acquire many of the skills needed to succeed on the big stage in future elections.

This criticism isn't material for the Conservatives and NDP to produce attack ads, something that these two parties will find a way get their hands on no matter what. A race devoid of substance and hard-hitting questions will produce the wrong winner and would be a blow to the party's fortunes.

Rebuilding will require working together, but to imagine that it is going to be one big group hug is most certainly disingenuous. There is a substantial difference between infighting and attempting to undermine a party's leader, on one hand, and public discourse related to political and policy issues on the other hand.

Since winning in 2015 should not be the end game -- after all, "go big or go home" could always result in going home, although this time the going home would be for good -- Liberals must try to get as much out of this leadership race as possible.

Better to have Grits unite around a common vision as a result of debate than to unite around a personality hoping for a Hail Mary. As history has demonstrated, coronations have not stopped attempts within the kingdom to undermine the reign of the king.