The best way to win the Republican presidential nomination in the United States, someone once said, is to run as far as possible to the right.
Then, when one wins the nomination?
Start running back to the centre.
Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole heeded that advice. His leadership campaign was brimming with the sort of stuff that right-wing folks love. His campaign’s strategy was to depict Peter MacKay as the squishy one-world government crypto-Liberal and O’Toole the conservative’s Conservative.
He was the “true blue” Conservative. He was going to do battle with “the Chinese regime,” which would be news to our military.
He was going to start a fight to “take back Canada” – from whom, he never said, but Indigenous people were likely unamused, having always correctly believed they had Canada first.
And, of course, O’Toole was going to give social conservatives what they wanted. He was their candidate, because he was the only one who could beat the communist MacKay.
- he suggested he had “concerns” about banning conversion therapy;
- he mused about creating “conscience rights” to make abortions harder to get;
- he intoned that he didn’t like medically-assisted death and would work to limit its use;
- he implied he would give some the “right” to refuse LGBTQ marriage;
- and he said social conservatives “will have a seat at the table” when he became Conservative leader.
After a clown show of a voting process, he eventually won the Tory crown in the wee hours of Aug. 23, when most of us had gone to bed.
And then, as in a dream, O’Toole switched the script.
It was kind of like the Bobby Ewing dream sequence on the prime-time television soap opera Dallas many years ago. J.R. was dead and we were trying to figure out the identity of the murderer. And then Bobby woke up and it was all a dream!
The producers of Dallas lost not a few fans with that little stunt, and my suspicion is O’Toole is going to lose some fans, as well.
On the progressive side of the spectrum, he has created a credible case for the criticism that he has a hidden agenda. On the social conservative side – a side he actively and indisputably courted for many months – there will be feelings of betrayal and anger.
That’s what happens when you try to suck and blow at the same time. That’s what happens when you try to be all things to all people. You end up satisfying nobody, really.
O’Toole had an exceedingly competent campaign team. That’s obvious. They were up against a likable, experienced former senior cabinet minister in MacKay. They were up against the widely-held impression that their candidate lacked charisma, name recognition, or a policy or two in some way newsworthy.
Despite that, they expertly manipulated the Byzantine Conservative voting process and captured ridings that were ridings in name only. They decisively beat MacKay by doing that.
But make no mistake: they also did that by pretending to be the most electable social conservative candidate. The other two social conservatives in the race couldn’t speak French – a nonstarter for a truly national political party.
Sure, sure. It’s true that Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is no longer as popular as he once was. It’s true that he has become enmeshed in multiple ethical scandals. It’s true that one of those scandals – the one that has soiled his family name – may yet take down his government.
But only a fool would underestimate Trudeau’s electoral skills. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer did that and ended up looking like a fool. He ended up looking like a guy who couldn’t score on an empty net if his life depended on it.
With a pandemic raging, and Canadians worrying about kids returning to school and businesses going under, it may be that Canadians will forget about O’Toole’s whiplash-inducing flip-flop. Or they may not care.
But Conservatives are dreaming in technicolour if they think the Liberal electoral machine hasn’t noticed. They’re delusional if they think Trudeau won’t take full and frequent advantage of their massive volte-face.
In politics, you have to believe in something. You do.
After last week, to both progressives and social conservatives, it’s fair to wonder if the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada believes in anything at all.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.