Liberals have three options. They can fight among themselves, as they have been doing. They can dump their leader, Michael Ignatieff, by means not yet identified, on the necessarily unproven assumption that anyone would be better. Or they can shut up and work together, making the best of what they have.
What Liberals cannot do, and would be crazy to contemplate, is a merger with the New Democratic Party.
Merger is constitutionally impossible for both parties, politically unwise and, more important, intellectually bankrupt. A coalition after the next election? To paraphrase a great Liberal leader: a coalition if necessary but not necessarily a coalition.
Were the Liberals to win more seats than the Conservatives, but fall short of a majority, they could reasonably turn to the NDP and try to work something out. But if the Conservatives won more seats, as the British Conservatives did, it would fall to that party to make the first move. Who knows what that would bring.
All chatter of postelection coalition is speculation, period. So, too, is the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt - encouraged by such former NDP luminaries as Roy Romanow and a few idle Liberal minds in Toronto from the Jean Chrétien faction of the party - presumably born of the Liberals' desperate straits.
Desperate times, it is said, lead to desperate measures, but they need not be stupid measures, which is what a merger would be. Fundamental differences separate federal Liberals and New Democrats, although not necessarily NDPers of the moderate, pragmatic Saskatchewan mould from which Mr. Romanow hails.
Liberals (usually) are for a strong central government, with no special status for Quebec; New Democrats believe in asymmetrical federalism, wherein Quebec is given the widest possible latitude to run things its way.
Liberals believe in the free market, although they will use the government to regulate the market; New Democrats are skeptical of the free market, especially under Jack Layton whose personal manifesto, titled Speaking Out, contains barely a positive word about the market.
Liberals believe (usually) in liberalized trade, be it bilateral or multilateral; New Democrats are instinctively protectionist and oppose almost every bilateral trade deal, preferring something called managed trade.
Liberals are (usually) not anti-American, although they sometimes want for political reasons to keep their distance from the United States; New Democrats are quite skeptical of the U.S., both in foreign policy and in how to run an economy.
Liberals don't want to redistribute income, but rather round off the rough edges of inequality; New Democrats seek redistribution as part of their social democratic/socialist tradition.
Liberals used to be the preferred party of Big Business, at least when they were in power; New Democrats have established and generic links with the trade union movement that plays an important, ongoing role in the party and the selection of its leader.
The list of differences, therefore, is long (other differences could be added to the list) and fundamental. Of course, the two parties can agree from time to time, especially when they are both in opposition. But they are different parties, with different ideals and histories.
New Democrats really haven't gone very far since the party was founded in 1961. The party, more or less, has remained in the same band of 13- to 18-per-cent of the national vote. The party has gained ground in Nova Scotia and won one seat each in Newfoundland and Quebec. It has gone back to being competitive in the industrial cities and hard rock communities of Ontario. It has gone backward in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan, once part of the party's heartland, and is not at all strong in most of the areas with new seats: suburban Toronto, Alberta and the B.C. Lower Mainland.
The Liberals (27- to 30-per-cent) have certainly lost ground, but even at their worst moment, such as now, they are considerably more popular than the NDP (15- to 18-per-cent). The Liberals' long-term slide is certainly worth examining. It's a slide that began a long time ago and has many explanations, central to which is the disinclination of French-speaking Quebeckers to want to play a role in the governing of Canada - a role they used to assign more often than not to the Liberals.
Also worth examining, although lost in the necessary and painful picking over the Liberal entrails, is why the NDP has essentially gone nowhere, yet is perceived, at least by some, to be the party of the future.