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The State of the Conservative Leadership Race: a Dialogue

Steven BlaneyJJ: Hey again Doug,

Seeing as how the Tory leadership contest is just a couple weeks away from concluding, I thought it might be fun if we could run through our impressions of some of the candidates.

To open, which candidates have you found the most interesting — not in terms of personal preference necessarily, but just who’s been the most compelling or thought-provoking in some way?

DOUG: One candidate who won’t win but has stood out to me is Pierre Lemieux. I remember when he entered the race I was talking about it with some other conservatives and we were wondering why the heck he’d joined, given the field was already so crowded. I almost have to apologize for that now! He’s actually run one of the best social conservative campaigns I’ve seen. He seems to have struck the right balance in discussing issues important to that part of the base without coming across as a fire-breathing type that would alienate the rest of the party. I don’t think social conservatism would have such a (somewhat undeserved, in my opinion) toxic reputation if more Lemieux-types were its advocates.

He’s hit on some other issues as well — he was ahead of the rest in reaching out on the free speech issues that came up in the campaign, and he offers a compelling personal story of military service coupled with both private sector and government experience. I had to laugh when media-types were “shocked” to hear rumors that he might finish ahead of Trost; they obviously don’t have ears on the ground in the so-con movement and don’t understand it. Most likely they simply view it — at best — as a few unenlightened individuals; at worst, the backwoods people from Deliverance.

Many social conservatives I’ve talked to have said similar things, and Trost has started to rub many the wrong way in just being a little too over-the-top. Lemieux has more presence than Trost as well; he’s a better speaker, a better gentleman, and quite frankly has a much less awkward twinge about him. Scheer seems to be the mainstream candidate of that lane, but I get the feeling he’s touching on social issues as little as possible since he could plausibly win and is probably afraid any so-con stances will be immediately back thrown in his face by the media and Liberals once he becomes leader (they will anyway). That’s probably what’s gave Lemieux so much breathing space for his campaign. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he finished seventh, maybe even sixth.

Another fringe candidate who’s intrigued me is Steven Blaney.

In some ways, I feel like he’s really in the wrong election — he’s running for the CPC leadership when his true calling is running in a French legislative election as a representative of the National Front. I just get this visual image of him stirring up the locals out at a regional festival of some obscure French village. Everyone’s a little too inebriated on Port and bloated from various rich foods. I picture a few confused tourists accidentally stumbling in and getting stared down while awful “regional music” plays in the background. Blaney would emerge from a balcony wearing a sash and fire everyone up with a loud speech blaming the “elites” for closing down the local factory, or some other local grievance, to the delight of the crowd.

Silliness aside, I do suspect he’s the most “nationalist-right” candidate in the field and a genuine ideologue, it’s just that he embodies a more European-style of right-wing thought, which is why some of our friends from the economic wing of the party find him so confusing, or accuse him of being a phony Conservative since he supports supply management. I do agree he’s gone too deep into the weeds on that issue, though he’s hardly alone in that (dairy policy in general has received inordinate attention in this race).

Blaney might have gotten more play had he not been from Quebec, given he’s pretty unknown in English Canada. He might have even eaten into the Leitch vote since he seems more consistent. He’s been saying the same things since his ADQ days, while her previous life as a moderate raises suspicions that she’s running a bait and switch-style campaign, a la Patrick Brown in 2015.

I also found Kevin O’Leary interesting but not in a traditional sense — more in terms of just how poorly he did in a field he really could have dominated had he put in half the effort. I really can’t think of anything he did correctly. Before the race even started he was spouting off with opinions that poisoned the well for his campaign (his comments on ISIS honestly made Trudeau seem informed and balanced in comparison), and made the base instinctively skeptical. He seemed lazy, holding less events than others and campaigning via video link from Florida. For someone who was supposed to be brash and “bold,” he tucked his tail from multiple debates and never really proposed any particularly earth-shattering ideas.

It was almost exactly like Belinda Stronach’s 2003 leadership campaign in many ways, right down to a lot of the people managing it. Both candidates were prominent figures from the world of business whose economic expertise was supposed to be their selling point (in reality, neither was as accomplished as their marketing suggested). Both only had one foot in the Conservative camp, with Stronach eventually defecting to the Liberals and O’Leary having flirted with them before entering. Both had poor French skills, skipped debates, promoted bizarre and idiotic strategies — e.g. O’Leary claiming the party needs “60% of the under 30 vote.” I’m surprised the paraellels didn’t come up more during the campaign, but I guess memories are short.

All that being said, I do think O’Leary’s celebrity combined with the split field could have actually given him a path to victory. As you and I discussed in our previous chat, he probably could have even wound up unifying the party with an aggressive “we don’t like Trudeau”-type appeal. I just have to assume leader of the Conservative Party didn’t wind up coming off as the glamorous job he initially excepted, making him eager to take the first possible out back to the Shark Tank studio and catered meals.

 

JJ: We’re certainly in agreement on O’Leary. I was initially so turned off by his dangerously ignorant comments on ISIS I basically considered myself #neveroleary, but I did soften a bit as he started to seem the most plausibly electable in a general election context. I still do think that.

The chronic underestimating of, if not hostile obliviousness to, the social conservative vote is definitely one of the big stories of this race, in my mind. 90% coverage of Christian-right voters in this country frames them as problem to be solved — if not an actively sinister force – and it’s basically impossible to read any mention of them in the mainstream press that isn’t preceded by a phrase like “need to be kept in check.” Yet they’re clearly not going away, and it’s been revealing that basically every candidate is running to the right of Harper on social issues — not just the “so-con mascots” like Lemiuex and Trost, but even someone like Bernier. Libertarians are stereotyped as being anything-goes when it comes to questions of sexual freedom and Christian moral codes, but by promising to tolerate open parliamentary debate on abortion, Bernier’s already vastly more so-con friendly than the previous Tory government.

As someone who cares a lot about immigration, I can’t help but be preoccupied with the Kellie Leitch campaign. Given multiculturalism is such a sacred cow to the elite class of this country, her candidacy was always destined to be judged the harshest, and bear the heaviest burden of self-justification. In that sense, it’s unfortunate that she, of all people in the world, wound up serving the role of immigrant-skeptic candidate. I’ve been predicting from the very beginning that enormous, enormous significance will read into her campaign if she loses (or is “rejected,” as I imagine the preferred phrasing will go), which will then be moulded into an “immigration/Muslim skepticism doesn’t work in Canada” narrative that will be endlessly recited by the media forevermore.

A lot of the factors working strongest against Letich had little to do with policy and were probably beyond her control — the sorts of things we’re always told not to care about in politics but everyone still does, including her haircut, her twangy accent, her awkwardness with makeup, her lack of a family or interesting life story to humanize her — and of course all these gossipy stories suggesting she’s a total bitch in person. Over the course of the campaign I think her team has done a pretty good job at making her more superficially palatable, but because so many powerful people are rooting for her to fail, no matter what she says or does, obsessive nastiness is the default response — think of the needlessly cruel mocking of her Facebook videos — that’s proven very difficult to overcome.

Policy wise, her proposals haven’t gotten a much fairer reception. She has noted repeatedly and accurately that all of her marquee ideas — the immigrant values tests, face-to-face interviews for would-be citizens, cracking down on illegal border-crossers from the U.S., etc. — are overwhelmingly popular with the public, yet most coverage of her campaign still frames her candidacy as a kind of sinister siren song, trying to lure otherwise decent Conservatives into some dark, sinful place when in reality, if anything, she, the supposed ex-“reddest of Red Tories,” is trying to lead the parade from the back. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? On the one hand, she’s accused of being this previously-moderate, empty vessel of blind ambition who will say whatever it takes to win. On the other hand, her ideas are dismissed as being the crankish ramblings of a mad ideologue with no base whatsoever among right-thinking Canadians.

Increasingly, however, I just respect her as someone who will criticize Maxime Bernier. Bernier is fascinating to me in that the race seems to be unfolding in his favor in an almost organic way. He seems to face very little strong opposition from anyone, even the press, which is curious given he’s also framed as the most “ideological” (which usually means “bad”) candidate. If you want to read pointed criticisms of the man, I don’t know where else to look but Leitch’s campaign emails.

I see Bernier as the sort of the Conservative “id” candidate in a lot of ways.

It’s clear that a lot of conservatives have internalized the idea that their party Must Win Quebec, which really validates something you said in our last dialogue about how all these conservative thought-leader types preach that the party is only morally “allowed” to win power through a certain path. Harper proved it’s entirely possible to win a majority government without Quebec, yet Bernier has done a good job playing up this idea that no, Quebec is actually a must-win province, a task which he, as the Frenchest guy in the race, is uniquely equipped for.

Meanwhile, he also satiates a desire for the party to either move further to the right, or at least become more coherently “principled” in some way. I personally don’t think Bernier’s nearly as principled as this reputation suggests — I think it’s a weird sort of libertarian who gets so defensive about the importance of the CBC, for instance, and the Leitch people have done a good job pointing out his past hypocrisies — but the idea of a candidate who is completely unyielding on certain issues, even if they’re just weird issues like milk policy, is clearly very attractive to those who think the party has become too transactional or cautious.

Bernier’s Quebec-ness and libertarian-ness similarly appeases the media, who are always scolding the Conservative Party that it needs to be more that way. In that sense, he’s calling their bluff — “okay, here I am, a French guy who seems to only care about cutting taxes and shrinking the government. Can I expect a warm reception now?” If he wins, however, I think the press narrative will quickly switch to something about how “Bernier’s harsh slash-and-burn approach to government represents a marked contrast to the compassionate view of the state held by Justin Trudeau — and indeed, most Canadians.” Personally, I think the man has a fundamental “strangeness” problem that will serve as a real handicap to his electability — but we can perhaps get into that later.

What about the rest of the race?

 

DOUG: Let me talk about the candidates I see as the only two possible winners after Bernier — Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. (Though in fairness I think O’Toole is increasingly at “miracle” odds; Lisa Raitt announcing she prefers Scheer as her second choice was probably the coup de grace of the O’Toole campaign).

O’Toole easily wins runner-up for “most disappointing campaign” after O’Leary. In a lot of party leadership contests — not just in Canada, but elsewhere — there’s always this one establishment candidate who seems to have been focus grouped to the hilt, to the point where they enrage no one particularly, but also appeal to no one explicitly (Marco Rubio’s GOP campaign is exhibit “A”).

I feel as though people like the idea of Erin O’Toole more than they actually like his campaign or policies. He’s a guy who appears to tick all the boxes — veteran, successful lawyer and philanthropist, nice family that strikes everyone as the “friendly neighbours next door” — yet something is still deeply lacking in his candidacy. He seems to strike the middle cord on almost every front, like he’s deliberately choosing the equidistant position from the Blaney/Trost types on one end and Chong on the other. Maybe trying to play the ranked ballot game a little too much? It’s not unheard of for someone to try and garner a whole pile of second and third-place votes, and yet because they simultaneously fail to get enough firsts, they stall out early in this awkward system.

It doesn’t help either that O’Toole sort of comes across as — dare I say — “low energy.” I was practically falling asleep when he spoke at the Atlantic debate. His advisors clearly tried to turn things around with some very awkward attacks on other candidates late in the campaign (see his cringe-worthy attack on Scheer for having “left the field of battle” during his time as speaker).

What’s amazing is the vast amount of resources that have been poured into the O’Toole camp. He’s right up there with Scheer for most caucus endorsements and he’s been very competitive in the donation game, though I’m not seeing a ton of love flowing from the party membership as a result. It’s only because he’s been largely inoffensive that I could see him getting some down ballot support, which is why I consider him one of the three that could still plausibly win.

This caucus endorsement issue is one that’s hard to get a grasp on — we’re told by the party and media about how important these things are, as if the endorsing MP’s are agonizing over tomes of policy documents and psychological assessments before coming up with their heartfelt recommendation. In reality, while I’m sure there’s some genuine reflection, a lot of these endorsements aren’t much more inspired than any normal person’s vote, and could even be biased by proximity.

A number of factors that would be fairly unimportant to voters as a whole clearly go into a politician’s choice. There’s a clear geographic leaning at times — in this race, Scheer’s endorsements lean Western, O’Toole’s learn Eastern, while the other candidates generally only have local support. Personal relationships and returned favors are obviously par the course as well. Then there’s the even more cynical reasons — simple coattail riding is big, particularly near the end of a race when the hand sitters finally hop aboard the leading campaigns. All that being said, a candidate with zero backing from their colleagues could also speak volumes about that candidate’s chances, or even worse, a serious ideological or personality issue (Allison Redford, for instance, only had the support of one MLA when she ran for leader — clearly caucus was onto something).

I have more time for the other establishment candidate, Scheer, who seems to be poised as the “default” option. One large dichotomy between myself and other voters in this race is that most Conservatives seem to think we’re electing someone “who can beat Trudeau” in 2019. I’ve been operating under the assumption we have only a slim chance of doing so — it’s rare for Canadian governments to fall after just one term, and I suspect a lot of the arguments the CPC will make re: Trudeau’s deficits, economic growth etc. won’t come entirely to pass within the next two years and thus won’t be the scale-tippers they hope. I’m not stating it’s impossible — there could always be a housing crash, some horrible scandal etc. — but I think the base needs to be cognizant that this may be just an election to make gains or reduce the Liberals to a minority.

This is where I think someone like Scheer becomes a perfectly plausible candidate to put out there. I can’t imagine a catastrophe occurring under his watch (as could happen under Bernier or Leitch) and he’s young enough that in the case he does make gains or perform well as leader, but not unseat Trudeau, he could still be given another shot in the next election. I think the base would be largely comfortable with him, and he doesn’t exude any terrible qualities that would have the left uber-mobilized against him, nor turn off swing voters. I think the CPC might make gains in 2019 based on lower turnout alone; Trudeau’s lack of action/mistakes on certain files might see the casuals stay at home, and the catastrophic decision of the CPC to run such a long campaign in 2015 — which allowed the Liberals to motivate people who wanted to “ride the wave” — might not be in play this time.

I’m not saying Scheer’d be fantastic. He’s been quite bland at times, which is pretty inexcusable since he actually has quite a congenial personality.  He’s almost playing it a little too safe, which is possibly part of the reason Bernier has the edge on him at the moment. Still, I say Scheer is almost the “get out of jail” card in this race, a sort of acknowledgment the field was flawed, so we’d best just go with Harperite continuity — albeit with a friendlier face than Harper himself — and if things go only OK under Scheer, well, we can always try to find a better leader after the election.

 

JJ: Hearty agreement here. I wrote a piece a while ago arguing the best sort of leader the Tories could pick for 2019 would be someone really boring (at the time, I was thinking about Tony Clement). My logic was basically more or less what you just articulated — an incumbent first term majority government prime minister is not likely to be unseated after just four years in office, and Trudeau is still broadly popular.

An upset of this magnitude could only happen in the dual context of a profound national crisis and an extremely compelling opposition leader — a Reagan unseating Carter-type scenario. If the opposition leader is not compelling, however, and the public is generally defensive towards the incumbent, then running a candidate with any sort of bold or divisive platform becomes very high risk. The press, which is hostile to conservatives by default, will inevitably ignore the incumbent’s various advantages and frame the defeat as a “decisive rejection” of the conservative leader’s agenda or mindset — bet it libertarianism, immigrant skepticism, or whatever else — Johnson defeats Goldwater.

But if the opposition leader is just kind of boring and generic, then it’s hard to avoid the narrative that the losing candidate was simply “uninspiring.” The Dion/Ignatieff/Romney story, basically.

A sort of backhanded endorsement of Scheer, I guess. This all sounds very cynical and calculating, but if you believe the priority is unseating the Liberals while doing minimal ideological damage to the party, this has to be the animating mindset. Or maybe I’m just naturally risk-adverse.

Of course, all this being said, I still wouldn’t put it beyond the realm of possibility that something really bizarre happens as the votes are being tallied, given the loopy electoral system the party is using — maybe Dr. Peterson wins on the 10th ballot or something. We’ll have to reconvene after May 27th and see if our assumptions and predictions need to be revised in the wake of the actual results.




^ 6 Comments...

  1. Ozius

    I would give anything for Dr. Peterson to win.

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  6. DominickGray

    For me Kellie Leitch is the most interesting. Her campaign and behavior speaks for her as a rarely intellectual woman in politics.