10/07/2011 09:38 EDT | Updated 12/07/2011 05:12 EST

The NDP's Applause Line Problem


Contenders in the upcoming federal NDP leadership campaign will all face a similar problem.

And that problem has to do with "applause lines."

Applause lines are those bits in a speech designed to get an audience cheering and clapping with approval.

It's also the part of the speech you hope gets highlighted on the evening news.

So what's the problem?

Well, for the most part, NDP leadership candidates will be speaking to highly partisan and ideologically-oriented audiences: union gatherings, left-leaning special interest groups, NDP delegates, etc.

This, in turns, means the leadership candidates will be tempted to come up with an applause line that's also highly partisan and ideologically-oriented.

And that's the danger; ideological applause lines sometimes don't work well with non-partisans.

Passionately exclaiming in a speech that you plan to "tax the heck out of the capitalist exploiters on Bay Street," will likely win great roars of approval at a Canadian Socialist League rally; but it will also likely alienate mainstream Canadian voters.

In the old days, of course, this was never really much of a concern for candidates in NDP leadership races.

After all, no one ever really expected the NDP to form a government and so no one really paid all that much attention to leadership utterances.

But times have changed.

Now for the first time in its history the NDP is the Official Opposition and the government in waiting.

That means the NDP is selecting a potential prime minister. And so, Canadians in general and the media in particular will be paying closer attention to the race.

Just as importantly, the Conservative Party will also be paying special attention. You better believe a Conservative "tracker" will show up, video camera in hand, at public NDP leadership events to carefully record every candidate's speeches.

And as soon as any candidate utters any idea that sounds radical or crazy left-wing or just plain "scary" it will end up that night on YouTube and on blogs across the country.

Nor will it end there.

The Tories will undoubtedly use their collection of video clips to create TV attack ads which they will unleash days after the new NDP leader is selected. So the NDP leadership candidates will have to tread a fine line.

They will have to be passionate enough to excite their base, but not too ideological that it will frighten away future potential voters.

This, by the way, is more or less the same challenge facing the Republican Party in the United States.

Like the NDP, the Republican Party has a strong ideological base that needs careful nurturing.

Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have to keep that in mind, but they can't afford to come off looking too "extreme" as this will come back to haunt them in the general election.

Anyway getting back to Canada and the NDP, it will be interesting to see how the various leadership candidates handle the applause line problem.

I suspect there will be a few "hard line" candidates who will run as unabashed socialists, regardless of the future political consequences.

But the other candidates who want to set a more "moderate" tone will have to come up with a new angle to rally the troops.

And one good way to win support is to promise the one thing political parties, regardless of ideological stripe, want above all else: victory.

So expect to hear lots of lines like this: "Vote me leader as I am the only one who can beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper".

For the NDP faithful that would be one heck of an applause line.

This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.