Which is worse? Being called a chicken by your friends, or doing something so stupid you kill yourself to prove you’re not afraid?
Lots of foolish young people have died needlessly because they were afraid to chicken out of a stupid dare. It’s for situations like this that the “Darwin Awards” were created. Having been young themselves once, this is among the greatest fears parents have for their children.
Well, folks, there are political Darwin Awards too. Jack Layton – a politician I like and admire – finds himself in the position of a feckless teenager who has threatened to do something foolhardy. Social democrats should fear for their party just as parents fear for their kids.
Having said he’d vote against Stephen Harper’s government no matter what, Mr. Layton could be faced with the prospect in the next few days of feeling he must contribute to an election that would bring no joy to the NDP and its supporters.
If the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff were to decide to bring down Mr. Harper’s government this week or next, they would almost certainly have the support of the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc would calculate it could make gains in Quebec in a federal election held now.
But the Liberals and the Bloc don’t have enough votes between them to topple the government. To achieve that goal they need the NDP, which has said unequivocally it will vote to bring down the government regardless.
Alas for the NDP, such a strategy would be suicidal. Giving Mr. Ignatieff a chance to topple Mr. Harper and form a minority of his own would tempt most NDP voters to vote massively for the Liberals to block a Conservative majority.
The NDP could be wiped out.
So, for Conservatives and Liberals alike, a federal election this summer might be interpreted as a contest they could win. For the Bloc, it would likely be a no-lose situation. For the NDP, the probability is high it would be a catastrophe.
What should Mr. Layton do?
First, of course, he should pray that Mr. Ignatieff chickens out first. If the Liberals let the Conservatives’ “probation” continue, the NDP can rightly assail them as the party that yaks about the Harper agenda while it backs the Harper agenda. Liberals have voted to keep Mr. Harper in power 77 times, and 78 will look just that much worse. Who knows, at some point that fact might sink in with Canadian voters.
And Mr. Ignatieff could well back off. It’s clear that he and some of his advisers are not sure that now is the best time to go. He’s said to be holed up with the Prime Minister as this is being written, trying to find a way out of a summer election they’d both rather avoid.
On the other hand, there’s a school of thought that with the economy in the dumper and distrust of the Harperites growing in most parts of Canada, there may never be a better moment for the Liberals to pull the plug than right now.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said the 19th Century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (at right). Casting a suicidal vote against the government just because you said you would is an excellent example of foolish consistency.
“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do,” Emerson added. Mr. Layton has a great deal to do, and Canadians need him to do it.
If Mr. Ignatieff pulls the trigger, Mr. Layton should find an excuse to back Mr. Harper’s government.
If he does so, he will suffer a certain amount of verbal abuse. He will be accused of breaking a promise. But since when did breaking promises hurt the prospects of Liberals or Conservatives?
Face it, this may make political zealots of all stripes angry, but in reality it’s something mature adults have to do from time to time when they consider all the facts. Anyway, just as the public does with those other parties, voters will soon forget.
Mr. Layton can bet on it: The sting of being called a chicken hurts less than the bitterness of political destruction.