I'll forgive you if you haven't been paying attention to the New Democratic leadership race. It's been about as thrilling as watching paint dry. This suits a lot of Dippers, who believe in consensus and kumbaya, unlike those fratricidal Liberals, who are always tearing each other to shreds in their ruthless quest for power. NDPers are morally and spiritually better than that.
But now, New Democrats might be ready to select a mean guy. Thomas Mulcair's main claim to fame is that he is a pit bull. Some people think this is a good thing, because only a pit bull is mean and nasty enough to take on Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
NDPers must be nostalgic for St. Jack. He was always smiling and his brand of socialism wasn't very scary. He was a happy warrior. Now they've got to choose between an angry warrior and a crowd of wimps. Decent people they may be, but there's not enough charisma among the lot of them to power an environmentally friendly light bulb.
The other point in Mr. Mulcair's favour is geography. He's from Quebec. So are a majority of the party's seats. Maybe he can persuade Quebeckers that even though le bon Jack is gone, his party is worth more than a one-night stand. The way to do this is by promising them everything they want, forever. And if Quebeckers don't like the way things are going, no problem! They can leave.
Within the party, the rap against Mr. Mulcair is that he believes in "modernizing." This seems to mean he might try to move the party to the centre to win more popular support. There are rumours that he might even talk to the Liberals. "Modernizing" is a dirty word to many Dippers, who, unlike Liberals, prefer purity to power. The old guard thoroughly despise him. Even Ed Broadbent has been trash-talking him.
The trouble is, the world has changed a lot since Mr. Broadbent led his party to a (then) record 43 seats back in 1988. The socialists, and their ideas, fell out of power across Europe. The NDP's old base of well-paid union workers shrank dramatically – they now account for just 16 per cent of Canadians working in the private sector. The public-sector unions can expect dwindling support from the rest of the country as they fight to defend their privileges, which look pretty good compared to most people's. Our most pressing public-policy challenge is health care, which is straining at the seams because of soaring costs and unquenchable demand. Jobs for kids are drying up. The NDP has nothing to say about all this, except "tax the rich."
"We've always been very conscious of the fact that a majority of Canadians share most of our goals and values," Mr. Mulcair said the other day. But they don't. Take the oil sands. Most Canadians (except Quebeckers) want the oil sands developed in a responsible way because they think the economic benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Most NDPers want the oil left in the ground because they think the oil sands are immoral. Mr. Mulcair claims he's not against the oil sands (which he calls "tar sands") so long as the government extracts billions from the industry in the process. Westerners will go for that the day the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.
Some NDPers are under the illusion that after the miracle of 2011, they actually have a shot at power. This is a fantasy. They stumbled into Official Opposition because Quebeckers loved Jack Layton and the Liberals fell apart. This confluence of circumstances will never be repeated. Today's progressives are in the same position conservatives were in 1993, only worse. It took only a few years for warring members of the right to overcome their distaste for each other and start talking about uniting again. The Liberals and New Democrats are far more tribal. Until they get over it, they don't have a chance. Otherwise, as the NDP's Pat Martin told The Hill Times last week, "Stephen Harper will be Prime Minister until he gets bored."