Mulcair, our bearded man of mystery
Canada’s Opposition leader must spend his summer unravelling what can only be called the Mulcair mystery.
If Justin Trudeau is Canada’s shiny object, then Tom Mulcair is Canada’s enigma wrapped in a beard.
The NDP leader delivered a fairly flawless performance in the House of Commons this past spring, save for a misstep at a stop sign.
He has imbued a sense of purpose, discipline and confidence in a young caucus that takes its cue from a leader whose own confidence borders on cockiness as he looks forward to the 2015 campaign.
But leave the insular atmosphere of Ottawa and the NDP leader does not seem to register.
Certainly, he didn’t this past spring on two coasts.
He campaigned for his candidate in the Labrador byelection, but the party’s vote share dropped a percentage point from 2011.
He hit the ground running for Adrian Dix in the British Columbia election and the provincial NDP leader proceeded to squander a huge lead and ultimately lose to Liberal Christy Clark.
Neither of these failures can be laid directly at Mulcair’s feet, but the party is in need of something to point to the fact that it can build on the Jack Layton orange wave outside Quebec.
Airlift any refugee from Ottawa into a political conversation anywhere else in Canada and the questions revolve around Trudeau.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper inspires passion, both pro and con, depending on what side of the divide one inhabits.
But Mulcair is. Just. There.
There are clues to this mystery.
Those of us who inhabit Ottawa overvalue what happens within the parliamentary precinct and forget that a series of widely praised prosecutorial question period performances by Mulcair on the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright affair have a limited shelf life and a shallow geographical reach.
Pocketbook issues still dominate in this country and there is a sense that Mulcair has not articulated an economic position on behalf of a party that has never been entrusted to steer the financial ship federally.
The most oft-heard reason is Mulcair’s perceived lack of warmth, not necessarily a reality, but perception trumps all. The party tried to address this in a video it released during this spring’s national convention in Montreal.
In short, Trudeau plays with yoga poses for photographers, invokes his father’s name when needed, masters social media, and his support holds firm even as he grapples with a steep learning curve.
Mulcair guards his personal life, dabbles in social media only reluctantly and saves his performances for the Commons. He leaves only a tiny footprint in English Canada.
That’s why Mulcair’s summer is so challenging.
He will march in Toronto’s Pride parade, attend what will be an emotionally charged Calgary Stampede and head out to the Royal St. John’s Regatta.
He will travel the country with his populist Roll Up the Red Carpet campaign to abolish the Senate.
But he will also embark on a more substantive “listening” tour through aboriginal communities, not dictating NDP policy but learning of the daily challenge of natives’ lives leading to this autumn’s 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation that enshrined the nationhood of Canadian aboriginals.
Mulcair must push back against the Canadian political default position that relegates his party to third place, but he cannot become what he is not.
He can come across as brusque and he doesn’t give rote answers to reporters’ questions he doesn’t like. He can appear testy at times.
But that should not be a barrier to power. It certainly wasn’t to Harper, who has not won on personal warmth, but with superior political strategy and unshakable message discipline. The man who won a majority in 2011 is the most awkward “retail politician” in Ottawa in a generation.
It’s an open question as to whether Canadians feel they need that type of personality to punch a ticket to power, and that may be one thing that separates us from Americans.
Barack Obama did exude campaign warmth, particularly when compared to Mitt Romney and John McCain.
George W. Bush played to his Republican base by impersonating a regular guy even though he was a child of privilege. Bill Clinton famously “felt your pain” when he was consoler-in-chief.
The good news for Mulcair is he has two years before he takes his case to voters.
By then, the Conservative government could look extremely shopworn and Trudeau will have expended his novelty.
That may not be enough for New Democrats, but it is why they are prepared to stay the course, whether Canadian voters want to hug their leader or not.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.