At serious risk of being forced out of his job next month when his party holds its post-election leadership review, Thomas Mulcair really didn't need more evidence to be presented to New Democrats about how much trouble they are in.
But in the first budget tabled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals, that kind of bad news is exactly what the NDP got – to the extent that there is now even more incentive for party members to consider new leadership than there was immediately after last fall's precipitous plunge from a lead in the polls back to third-party status.
Coming out of that crushingly disappointing election result, many New Democrats echoed one of their favourite truisms: that Liberals campaign from the left and govern from the right. While loaded with frustration at the way Mr. Trudeau had supplanted Mr. Mulcair as the choice of non-Conservatives to replace Stephen Harper, that refrain also carried a hint of optimism. Once the Liberals showed their true colours, maybe some of the people who gravitated to them would feel betrayed and return to the NDP fold.
But the evidence, so far, is that Mr. Trudeau's Liberals – unlike the last ones to govern federally, or those running the country's second-largest government in Ontario – will if anything govern to the left of where they campaigned. Rather than using worse-than-expected finances as an excuse to scale back social spending and infrastructure plans, they will finance such investments with a deficit three times the size of the $10-billion one they promised in their election platform.
And in a dizzying array of policy areas, from public housing to child care to employment insurance, the fiscal plan unveiled this week by Finance Minister Bill Morneau hints at new national programs or progressive-minded overhauls to be launched over the course of the Liberals' first mandate.
That long-term Liberal ambition is the real New Democratic nightmare.
During last year's campaign, the NDP suggested that the Liberals' promise to get back to a balanced budget within four years would mean an austerity push in the back half of their mandate. After that warning fell on deaf ears, an obvious hope was that it would be proved right in the long run, putting the Liberals on the wrong side of progressive priorities by 2019.
Instead, the Liberals are now projecting a $17.4-billion deficit by that election year, with no guarantees when it will be erased; privately, they speculate that for the foreseeable future, their target voters will care more about the government improving their lives through investments than whether it is in the red.
That's allowing the Conservatives, despite their own leadership flux, to begin making a case about the Liberals mortgaging the future. But it leaves the NDP, in current form, without much discernible turf to even begin staking out.
There have been New Democrats, mostly on the Prairies, who have managed to align fiscal responsibility with their party's values.
But Mr. Mulcair, whose attempt to keep his job involves contrition for making a balanced-budget pledge that allowed the Liberals to differentiate themselves during last year's campaign, would be hard pressed to again join the Tories in attacking Liberal recklessness.
That leaves him now trying to position himself further to the Liberals' left, but with grievances – the government's unwillingness to raise corporate taxes, mostly, and the pace of some expenditures – that for now will sound pretty marginal to most voters.
His case may grow sharper as it becomes easier to poke holes in the Liberals' delivery of their policies. But as long as the common perception is that the Liberals are unapologetically trying to use the state's power to improve Canadians' lives, with the Conservatives as their small-government foils, Mr. Mulcair stands to get pretty lonely hanging around as a left-of-centre fallback.
Perhaps no NDP leader will be positioned to seriously compete in the next election. If it's just about holding the party together, and continuing the professionalization of party apparatus that began under Jack Layton, there is a decent case for sticking with the current one – especially since Mr. Mulcair has demonstrated at least some ability to keep Quebec seats on which New Democrats' grip could otherwise be tenuous.
But if this is a Liberal government built to last, there is also an argument for the New Democrats quickly getting started with the process – and inherent risks – of figuring out what appealing things they can offer that Mr. Trudeau does not.
A leader nearing the twilight of his political career, playing out the string, might reasonably strike delegates to the NDP's coming convention as an odd choice to take them down that road.