Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats came into this campaign as the front-runners, the leader with the team that would represent the change in an election all about change.
But the fact that Mulcair has not been able to put Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in the rear-view mirror — and is actually chasing him, according to some polls — is the story of this campaign.
The fact that three weeks from voting day we are in a three-way battle only provides ballast for Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.
The NDP campaign is expected to take a needed, hard look at how they got here and what the can do in the final weeks. Here are some factors to ponder:
Where is passionate Tom?
In the early months of 2015, the team around Mulcair worked hard to humanize their man, having him drop biographical snippets into his speeches, trying to ensure he looked accommodating and non-threatening.
With it came the ubiquitous reassuring smile. But Mulcair began the campaign so focused on appearing comforting and prime ministerial that his passion appeared to be vacuumed out. In the French debate a bit of his aggressiveness returned, but Mulcair seems so leery of being caricatured again as “Angry Tom” that he has forgotten that part of his appeal in the first place was the indignation he regularly flashed when taking on Harper in Ottawa. He was channelling some of the passion of voters seeking change, but too few voters have seen that Mulcair and have only been exposed to this toned down, more vanilla version of the NDP leader.
Where is the bold NDP?
Forget the old left-right and “progressive” labels so easily tossed around. In many cases Mulcair has been outflanked by Trudeau, who has simply been bolder.
We have seen this before in Ontario, when previous premier Dalton McGuinty outflanked the NDP’s Howard Hampton with an anti-poverty strategy and in 2014 when Kathleen Wynne rolled out an NDP-friendly budget and dared Andrea Horwath to force an election on it.
It’s no coincidence the Trudeau camp includes key veterans from the McGuinty days and there is cross-pollination today between the Trudeau and Wynne camps.
In 2015, the Trudeau pledge to create jobs and build infrastructure by running three years of deficits neatly nudged Mulcair into the Harper-lite camp of those who would balance the budget.
Harper is seen to have more credibility on the issue and Mulcair is not getting the Ontario bump he sought from his pledge of fiscal efficiency.
The analogies with provincial experiences are not exact, of course. If there is a Conservative surge in Ontario it may be because Harper’s team rightly calculated that the initially popular Wynne would be by now a good target to campaign against. Conservative candidates, to cite one example, appear to be benefiting from objections to Wynne’s sex-ed program in the 905 belt.
Mulcair would raise the corporate tax rate, but not tax the upper income 1 per cent or make any changes to Harper’s child care benefit. It is Trudeau who would tax the rich and take the child benefits away from “millionaires.”
A drug-buying scheme that sounds like pharmacare stops just short of being pharmacare. A bold daycare plan would take years to unspool and is predicated on provincial buy-in.
Trudeau would end any bid to buy the F-35 fighter jet, leaving Mulcair to muddle in the middle of the jet fighter debate, criticizing Harper’s defence procurement but defending the open competition process.
It’s not that the NDP hasn’t put an electoral package on the table. It is that they seem reluctant to go the extra, bold step in selling their ideas because Mulcair got trapped in the cautious front-runner frame of mind.
Now he has a niqab problem in Quebec. He has had to spend too much time threading the needle on issues — and taking on Trudeau instead of Harper.
Similarly on the question of the environment and pipelines, proximity to power has forced Mulcair to pull his punches.
His position on the Energy East pipeline sounds murky to this ear and he has to be careful of the opposition to the pipeline in Quebec, home to the lion’s share of his support, while appearing sufficiently responsible on the energy sector to look like a man who could run the country. It is a tight fit politically.
But New Democrats know this. They have probably never been better organized on the ground. At this point in the 2011 campaign, the Orange Wave had yet to be detected. Three weeks is lots of time to get back in the game. But it will likely take a change of tone.