Tom Mulcair has a budget problem. It's also a leadership problem.
Next Tuesday, when the Liberal government tables a budget with a multibillion-dollar deficit, the NDP Leader won't be able to carry a clear, consistent political tune. He'll have to dance instead.
He's caught between the election campaign he ran just five months ago, when he insisted on balanced budgets, and the leadership review he faces three weeks from now – when most New Democrats want to toss that "austerity" pledge into the rubbish bin of history.
So when Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers a budget with a deficit of $25-billion or $30-billion, does Mr. Mulcair label it too big or too small?
This is at the heart of the problem facing Mr. Mulcair's NDP leadership.
A few months ago, Mr. Mulcair's NDP was telling voters they would not increase personal taxes or run a deficit, no how, no way, over the next four years. They pared down their social-democrat promises into little pieces so they'd fit into a balanced-budget plan – pledging full national daycare, but not for eight years.
Everyone in the NDP now seems to agree that was a mistake. The official party postmortem found the balanced-budget pledge shackled the NDP to "cautious change" that was out of step with the mood of voters. Now, New Democrats are trying to move on: finance critic Guy Caron is arguing things have changed since the election, hinting deficits are once again all right with the NDP.
But that doesn't quite solve Mr. Mulcair's budget problem. He insisted during the campaign that he didn't just accept the balanced-budget pledge as a tactic to reassure voters – but that it was in the very fibre of his being.
"It was something that I've always believed in," he told CBC News a week before the election. "And I don't believe that we can do these things on the backs of future generations."
That presents a problem for both Mr. Mulcair and the NDP.
The Leader can't continue to echo the fiscal policies he claimed were deep in his political soul for fear of riling the rank and file. He'll have to tailor his budget critique for an internal party audience. He will have to eschew criticism of the Liberals' red ink and swallow himself whole. Mr. Mulcair, for all his sharp wit, doesn't find that easy.
And the party membership, having apparently decided balanced-budget discipline was a mistake, now must endorse the leader who symbolized it.
The NDP's left wing is fired up: "The balanced-budget thing is two very big cement shoes that he's wearing," socialist caucus chairperson Barry Weisleder said.
The socialist caucus is considered a fringe, but there's a broader go-left movement in the NDP. U.S. Democratic presidential nomination candidate Bernie Sanders's rise has inspired party activists, one MP noted.
There's a sizable movement to sign on to the Leap Manifesto, penned by activists, which promotes more leftist policies and declares austerity a "fossilized form of thinking that has become a threat to life on Earth." On Tuesday, NDP MP Niki Ashton, who during the 2012 leadership race called Mr. Mulcair too centrist, refused to say if she supports him now.
Mr. Mulcair always faced some mistrust from the NDP's left, as a former Quebec Liberal Party MNA dubbed "Liberal Tom" by a few. But it's also not clear whether centrists are enthusiastic about keeping him.
But there's no obvious successor in a party that must now bridge support in both Quebec and English Canada. Mr. Mulcair's parliamentary talents are obvious. Supporters such as former Winnipeg MP Pat Martin say he followed the parsimonious budget traditions of Prairie New Democrats. The NDP doesn't have a tradition of firing leaders after one term. And Mr. Mulcair has already issued a mea culpa letter for the election and fired staff.
One senior party insider said Mr. Mulcair can square his election budget rhetoric with the party's mood – but he'd better start now. So what does Mr. Mulcair say about Liberal deficits and spending?
His NDP has had little coherent critique of Liberal fiscal plans. The party's addendum to the Commons finance committee's prebudget report called for the Liberals to keep their promises and add a few NDP planks such as national daycare, with no mention of deficits or direction. The Liberal budget will be a big test for the NDP Leader.