A federal Liberal Party left rudderless and half-sunk by the perfect storm at the polls has turned over the helm to Bob Rae, a veteran political captain certainly familiar with rough seas of the partisan kind.

Unfortunately for Rae, his most famous experience with political shipwrecks was as the former Ontario NDP premier who helped to scuttle both his then party and the provincial economy in the early 1990s.

Were it not for that unfortunate bit of history, Rae may well have become Liberal leader five years ago instead of Stéphane Dion.

Instead, Liberal MPs and other party brass have agreed to bring Rae on board as interim leader, but only after he undertook not to run for the job in a subsequent leadership contest.

Inside the Liberal backrooms, the common fear is precisely that Rae's past economic misadventures in Ontario would make him easy prey for Conservative attack ads, if not utterly toxic with voters in that province.

Mission near impossible

As an interim leader who won't have to face the voters, Rae has a lot of what the Liberals need most in the meantime — political experience and sharp communications skills. Now the third party in the Commons, the Liberals will have to fight just to be noticed.

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Liberal MP Marc Garneau looks on as newly appointed interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks to the media in Ottawa on Wednesday. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Rae has an abundance of the communications skills that will serve the party well in the Commons, with the media and on the endless rubber-chicken circuit that awaits him as he tries to rebuild the Grit brand in the months ahead.

He also has the experience and political smarts to take advantage of the inevitable problems ahead for the NDP as the honeymoon wears off and Jack Layton tries to manage a disparate caucus.

Finally, Rae is sufficiently bilingual to begin rebuilding what little is left of its shattered base in Quebec.

Despite Rae's impressive credentials, he has signed on to what must seem a mission near impossible.

Indeed, the good ship Grit is such a mess, the big question is not how Rae got his new job, but why anyone of sound mind would want it.

As he turns 63 in August, Rae takes the wheel of a party whose parliamentary representation has been chopped in half, the consequences of which could easily put the Liberals into an unstoppable death spiral.

Shrinking resources

In the short term, the loss of seats in the last election means Rae is going to be dangerously short of publicly funded manpower — the party's rescue has to be accomplished by half as many MPs and a fraction of the staff previously on the public payroll.

Losing parliamentary status as the Official Opposition means the party also forfeits millions of dollars in Commons funding for a research bureau critical to partisan strategy.

As leader of the third party, Rae is not entitled to an official residence or the entertainment budgets that go with it.

The Liberals are losing almost $2 million a year in public subsidies tied to the diminished number of votes cast for the party in the last election.

Making matters worse, Stephen Harper is promising to end those party subsidies altogether over the next three years, a move that would deprive the Liberals of another roughly $5.5 million a year.

Rae has to know that fundraising to replace all that lost cash will be a nightmare — a parliamentary rump with no platform, no money, and no permanent leader isn't the stuff that fills any party's coffers.

Against such daunting odds, Rae's promise to serve only as interim leader, and not to run for the permanent job at the end of it, is surely an act of selflessness rarely seen in party politics.

Of course, if the polls are showing the Liberals back in the game two years from now, the party could decide to change the rules again — and Bob's your leader.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct the amounts the Liberals stand to lose due to the 2011 election results and the proposed end of the per-vote subsidy.
    May 26, 2011 3:10 PM ET