For its entire history, the New Democratic Party has had to guard against being outflanked on the left by the always cunning Liberals. That current NDP Leader Tom Mulcair failed to anticipate this standard Liberal tack, or to consider it a threat serious enough to counter, will rank as his most egregious tactical error of this election campaign. The fallout may not be pretty to watch.
This does not mean Mr. Mulcair cannot hold his head high even if his party finishes in third place Monday night. The NDP has made impressive strides under his leadership, professionalizing its organization and establishing its believability as a government-in-waiting. Even if it loses its Official Opposition status, it should still end up with the second-highest parliamentary seat count in its history.
But internal postmortems of the NDP's strategy and campaign performance may yield plenty of uncomfortable moments for Mr. Mulcair. Many of the Mulcair skeptics from the party's 2012 leadership race, who included most of the party establishment and its éminences grises, will voice their discontent at the party's soul-selling, rightward tilt as it made its play for power.
The most unpardonable mistake, however, was to think the NDP could move blandly to the centre without the Liberal Party filling not only the progressive vacuum left behind but also seizing the "change" mantle that allowed it to claim its legitimacy as the true alternative to the Tories.
With principal adviser Gerald Butts at the helm of the Liberal campaign, it was no stretch to predict the former Dalton McGuinty strategist would ensure the Liberals adopted the same progressive pitch that enabled Mr. Butts's old boss to become and remain Ontario premier for nine years.
This included the "deficits don't matter" mantra that allowed Mr. McGuinty's successor to keep the Ontario Liberals in power by pushing an activist agenda. Kathleen Wynne's 2014 victory was made all the easier by the provincial NDP's abandonment of its progressive base.
The federal NDP invited U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz, one of the left's leading thinkers on income inequality, to address its 2013 policy convention. The Nobel Prize winner had been warning of a U.S. government "of the one per cent, for the one per cent and by the one per cent." But Mr. Mulcair failed to seize on income inequality as a defining issue of our time, refusing to promise tax increases on the rich. That allowed Mr. Trudeau to own the podium.
"Only Justin Trudeau will raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 per cent – Mulcair and [Stephen] Harper will not," the Liberals and their leader chanted endlessly throughout the campaign.
Mr. Mulcair, the one-time Margaret Thatcher admirer, may have had history on his side in promoting balanced budgets. But he did not have a vision to sell left-of-centre voters, much less younger idealists, that established the NDP in their minds as the vehicle for the kind of change they sought. Mr. Trudeau conveyed the "yes, we can" optimism they were looking for.
"Evidently convinced their main challenge was reassuring voters they would not be too risky, [the NDP] erred in the opposite direction – offering not enough change to voters eager for it," the Toronto Star's editorial board said in endorsing Mr. Trudeau. "By locking themselves into a balanced-budget guarantee, they managed to handcuff their own social conscience." Losing the Star was a symbolic blow; the paper had endorsed the NDP in the 2011 election.
Second thoughts among progressives and Liberal-loathing Quebeckers could allow Mr. Mulcair to save face – if the NDP holds on to enough seats to remain a viable contender for government in the next (more or less precipitous) election. But if the election yields a Liberal or Conservative minority, Mr. Mulcair must be wary of the trap that ensnared past NDP leaders: Teaming up with the Liberals to topple the Tories, or propping up a Liberal minority, could leave the NDP vulnerable to losing more than it gains in an informal coalition.
The NDP felt it had been had after supporting Pierre Trudeau's Liberal minority government between 1972 and 1974 in exchange for progressive legislation. The Liberals claimed credit for those policies, and the NDP saw its seat count cut in half in the 1974 election. A similar fate befell the Ontario New Democrats after they co-operated with the Liberals to unseat the Tories in 1985.
Still, such scenarios may be the least of Mr. Mulcair's problems come Tuesday morning.