Former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent was an early Tom Mulcair skeptic. During the party's 2012 leadership race, Mr. Broadbent questioned whether a newcomer with such shallow NDP roots could unite a caucus whose most experienced members supported his rival. He considered Mr. Mulcair's plan to pursue electability over ideology a "central mistake."
So far, Mr. Broadbent has been wrong on both counts. Not only has Mr. Mulcair held together his caucus of left-wing activists, prairie populists and political neophytes from Quebec, he has managed to complete the NDP's transformation into a mainstream contender for government.
This single-minded pursuit of power has required some trade-offs. The NDP has jettisoned its harder edges in order to appear less threatening. It has become the self-proclaimed champion of the middle class, rather than militant advocate of the poor or working class, and it has watered down its positions on taxes, trade and foreign policy to the point that they often differ only in degree from those of the Liberals or Conservatives.
The NDP base has shown itself to be remarkably pliant during this makeover. This is all the more surprising, considering that, unlike Jack Layton, Mr. Mulcair's résumé includes little of the down-in-the-trenches left-wing activism that allowed the former leader to nudge the party toward the centre without losing the trust of the base. No one doubted where Mr. Layton stood personally.
Mr. Mulcair is much more of an enigma. He was part of the Liberal Quebec government elected on a promise to shrink the state. He resigned as premier Jean Charest's environment minister following his opposition to a series of controversial projects, including a natural-gas power plant, a liquefied natural gas terminal and the sale of part of a provincial park for condos. But many Liberals attribute Mr. Mulcair's departure to a clash of personalities rather than principles. With an eye on the polls, he aligned himself with public opinion on all three projects, which were eventually abandoned.
As NDP Leader, Mr. Mulcair has all but shut down the debate within his caucus on the two most pressing concerns of Canadian progressives – income inequality and expansion of the oil sands. Not only has he ruled out raising taxes on the wealthy, something Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau advocates, he chides jurisdictions that have done so.
"How is New Brunswick going to be able to attract and retain top-level medical doctors when they're going to be told, 'Oh, by the way, our tax rate is now going to be close to 60 per cent?'" he said during the Aug. 6 leaders debate. He would raise corporate taxes, but again just "slightly."
Taxes are not the only issue that puts Mr. Mulcair at odds with his base. One of his most outspoken candidates – Linda McQuaig, who has spent her entire writing career advocating for higher taxes on the wealthy – only said what most NDP supporters outside Alberta were thinking when she told the CBC last week that "a lot of the oil sands may have to stay in the ground" if Canada is do its part to combat climate change.
Notwithstanding the math – Alberta's oil reserves are so large that "a lot" would go undeveloped under any scenario – Ms. McQuaig was merely channelling the view of many, if not most, NDP activists, who oppose any expansion of the oil sands, period. It earned her a laudatory tweet from author and social activist Naomi Klein, who called her "brilliant, honest and brave."
Mr. Mulcair, it seems, has set himself up for a major post-election clash with the rank-and-file by refusing to clarify his position on the Energy East pipeline. That project is a non-starter for NDP activists outside Alberta. (The NDP base in that province is dominated by pro-oil-sands labour unions that favour both pipelines and more domestic upgrading of raw bitumen.) Mr. Mulcair has tried to neutralize the anti-Energy East activists in Ontario and Quebec with vague promises of a tougher environmental-assessment process. But how long will that work?
In 2014, long-time Ontario NDP activists were "deeply distressed" by Leader Andrea Horwath's decision to run "to the right of the Liberals." Many traditional NDP supporters ended up voting for Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, whom they considered the true progressive of the two.
Mr. Mulcair has defied the skeptics, and may well elude Ms. Horwath's fate. But this isn't Mr. Broadbent's NDP any more. Mr. Mulcair's NDP has thrown much of the party's past under its campaign bus.