observations and opinion
When they write about the 2015 Canadian federal election, it will be the story of whether Tom Mulcair seized the golden opportunity, or fumbled it.
Rarely in memory have the leaders of the two traditional parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, been so different and in their own ways, so intensely loathed. The hostility of the “Harper Haters” is probably the ugliest, least rational sentiment ever to emerge in our modern political life. Harper himself evinces disdain for much of our political tradition – a feeling that seems to leak out of his vault-like exterior. People despise him for it and much else.
Across the way is Justin Trudeau, who if not regarded as a fool or joke, is widely disdained as a phony, smug, entitled dilettante. The Conservatives have worked hard to diminish Trudeau, an effort which has worked because as some commentators have said, it fits with one’s visceral reading of the man: he’s an actor.
Into the breach walks Thomas Mulcair, who inherited the Jack Layton NDP Opposition and who this summer seemed poised to push it from second to first place – a minor revolution in our politics. This possibility was not rooted in a mass public conversion to social democratic politics however, but rather the widespread enmity towards Harper and Trudeau, from both sides of the divide. Mr. Mulcair is the man in the middle.
To gather up those homeless voters and bring them under the orange tent, Mulcair first had to expand that tent. This has been a largely rhetorical exercise, muting or erasing elements of the NDP’s historical record and policy. Most notable is the NDP’s disavowal of deficits and debt – a political pledge made necessary by the reputation floating around that New Democrats are fiscally irresponsible.
That reputation is generally unfair: where the NDP has governed (provincially) it has a better record of balancing budgets than do the Conservatives or Liberals. In part, that’s due to a willingness to tax people and companies more and in part, it’s due to the NDP’s cautious and genuinely religious roots in the old Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the original prairie socialist party of Tommy Douglas. You don’t spend money you don’t have.
Bob Rae is often blamed for the NDP’s bad fiscal reputation (unfairly, considering the Liberal deficit he inherited in the midst of a severe recession – we later lauded Harper for following precisely the same kind of stimulus approach). Rae migrated to the middle himself and might be Prime Minister today, had the Liberals not spurned him three times (2006, 2009 and 2012). And so we find ourselves in the odd situation now where an ex-Liberal leads the NDP while many people wished an ex-New Democrat led the Liberals.
Which takes us back to Mr. Mulcair, very much in the middle of things. The fact that he leads the federal NDP is slightly, shall we say, odd. As an ardent supporter of Israel, he has had to rein in or smother some of the wack-job lefty “progressives” who’ve fallen under the spell of misogynistic Islamism. As an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Mulcair places himself far removed from most of his party (and its voters).
Indeed, what is neglected about Mr. Mulcair is how different he really is from the party he leads. In this, Mr. Mulcair has a political strength: nobody thinks he is a big-spending, business-busting lefty loon. But being so different from his party, Mr. Mulcair finds himself at risk and perhaps even at war, suppressing or muffling the more eccentric of his caucus members and militants (in this he can look to Stephen Harper for an example. Mr. Harper has become the world’s expert at smothering his own troops). Mr. Mulcair has so far successfully presented the NDP as himself, shorn of its dreadlocks.
In so many ways, Mr. Mulcair’s situation approximates that of Tony Blair in the mid-90s. Blair was an ambitious guy, with distinctly more libertarian instincts than his party comrades. He had a sharp radar for political opportunity and he knew, correctly, that Thatcher had re-centred British politics far to the right of where Labour used to tread. The party had to move to where the people were, or it would languish in prolonged, useless opposition.
Blair was a cogent political analyst, but he wasn’t the leader of his party: that job belonged to the immensely warm, talented and beloved John Smith. In 1994 John Smith was the acknowledged Prime Minister-in-waiting when he fell suddenly, shockingly dead of a heart attack. His party was shattered and regrouped around someone else: Tony Blair. This whole terrible drama played itself out in Canada’s NDP, as we know, when Jack Layton died. Mulcair, not much loved but highly respected, inherited the job of taking his party up the middle to power.
So now, half way through the campaign, Mr. Mulcair sits quietly between two warring camps of haters – the voters who loathe Harper and those who cannot stand Trudeau – and waits. He waits and waits, anticipating the unsettled refugee voters will shuffle towards him and lift him up to high office. But they’re not. People may have a vague sense that Mulcair is competent, but for one reason or another, they’re not lining up behind him.
Mr. Mulcair is largely a mystery to the population. Unlike Trudeau, who talks about the middle class like it’s a form of endangered mountain goat, Mr. Mulcair is the middle class – part of a huge family, scrambling up the greasy pole of public service, keeping his options open. Mr. Mulcair seems emotionally somewhat open – witness both his anger and his genuine tears – which makes him more accessible than Harper or Trudeau, both of whom wear permanent masks.
But being more human doesn’t necessarily make Mr. Mulcair more electable. He is, we are told, not all that likable. Two men I’ve spoken with, who know him personally, say it like this: “Tom is about Tom.” That is not a kind description, but given his history and line of work, not a surprise: Mulcair is a guy who has been climbing his whole life, and you don’t climb if you’re not a climber. It is crazy to fault someone for being ambitious, when his ambition is to be Prime Minister.
But wanting to be Prime Minister won’t make him Prime Minister. So far in the campaign there is a curious disengagement to Mulcair, not exactly diffidence but almost a discomfort. Maybe it’s because he’s not really a New Democrat. Or maybe it’s because he and his crew just aren’t accustomed to being in the lead and don’t know what to do with it. In the opening weeks of the campaign I noted that the NDP were like a hockey team that had scored a goal in the first minute of the game and were now hiding in the locker room, trying not to lose. That’s why they’re losing.
When I say “losing” I mean, not winning: they haven’t capitalized on their advantages to gear up towards a majority, but instead are in fact losing support (if the polls were at all accurate, the NDP has dropped from the mid to the low 30s, about 10 percent) since the writ was dropped. That support has floated over to Trudeau’s Liberals, which for the NDP really spells trouble (disaffected Liberals are the larger part of the vote Mulcair needs).
Mr. Mulcair seems muted. If he does or says something loudly, he risks setting off alarm bells that will wake voters up to the fact he leads the NDP. To win this thing, Mr. Mulcair had to do three things: (1) let Harper sink under the weight of his own lugubrious persona, (2) marginalize the Liberals as an un-serious option and (3) present himself as the wise, credible and sensible centrist.
To date, Item #1 is working better than hoped. Item #3 is plausible, albeit in a muted fashion (and somewhat injured by the ISIS withdrawal announcement). What’s missing, to the NDP’s peril, is a winning strategy for Item #2.
So far, the NDP seems to be going easy on Trudeau and the Liberals. Perhaps they don’t want to treat the Liberals like a serious option. Perhaps they’re counting on Harper to keep doing the dirty work. Perhaps the worry is that Mulcair’s alleged intellectual and rhetorical advantages, paired with a sour temper and sarcasm, might look like bullying. So instead of taking out the hammer and knocking out the kid, Mr. Mulcair stands back while Trudeau peppers him with shots.
Mulcair appears unhurt, but he’s also not getting anywhere. You can only stand still in the ring so long. A few weeks from now the bell will clang, the fight will be over and there’s a real risk Justin’s going to win this thing on points.