, 09.02.2020 09:49 AM

My latest: Erin’s error

The best way to win the Republican presidential nomination, 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 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. 

So:

• 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 he would give some the “right” to refuse LGBTQ marriage 

• and he said SoCons “will have a seat at the table” when he became Conservative leader. 

Which, after a clown show of a voting process, he eventually did. He won the Tory crown in the wee hours, when most of us had gone to bed. 

And then, as in a dream, Erin O’Toole switched the script.

It was kind of like the Bobby Ewing dream sequence on Dallas, many years ago. JR 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 Erin 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 and 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 is obvious. They were up against a likable, experienced former senior cabinet minister. They were up against the widely-held impression that their candidate lacked charisma, name recognition or a policy or two that were 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 Peter 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 could not speak French – a nonstarter for a truly national political party.

Sure, sure.  It is true that Justin Trudeau is no longer as popular as he once was. It is true that he has become enmeshed  in multiple ethical scandals. It is 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 Justin Trudeau‘s electoral skills. Andrew Scheer did that, and he 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 Erin O’Toole‘s whiplash-inducing flip-flop. Or they may not care. 

But Conservatives are dreaming in technicolor if they think the Liberal electoral machine has not noticed. They are delusional if they think Justin Trudeau will not 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 is fair to wonder if the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada believes in anything at all.

34 Comments

  1. Ron Benn says:

    Peter MacKay’s campaign was designed to win the PM position. Erin O’Toole’s campaign was designed to win the Leader of the Opposition. O’Toole succeeded in his initial goal, but his campaign has provided unlimited fuel for the anti-Conservative campaigns that will emerge in the months to come.

    MacKay understood that in order to form a majority government, the Conservatives need to win multiple seats in Toronto proper, not just the suburbs. They need to win multiple seats in Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa-Gatineau (with Toronto, the four largest municipal areas in Canada).

    The social conservative rhetoric that resonates strongly in the more rural and some suburban ridings does not nor will it resonate in the more urban settings. Enhanced gun controls, irrespective of whether they work or not, resonates in the denser urban settings. Continued dialogue about abortion, LGBTQ rights/privileges, and the like does not resonate in the more urban settings.

    Peter MacKay understood this. He understood that what he said in the leadership campaign would be used against him in a general election. Erin O’Toole is now the Leader of the Opposition, a position that he may likely continue to hold after the next general election. Why? Because he set his target too low.

    • Miles Lunn says:

      Actually not totally true. There are rural areas, suburbs, and urban areas and a successful leader needs to win two of three. Harper never won a seat on island of Montreal while getting shut out of Vancouver and Toronto proper not great; it is Lower Mainland suburbs and 905 belt, not city proper that decide elections.

      That being said suburban voters tend to be fairly centrist on being too pro-gun, socially conservative and weak on climate change won’t even win you suburban voters. Biggest difference is with suburban you just have to be centrist and not too scary. With urban they want you to be progressive and woke which is probably a bridge too far for Tories.

      In terms of numbers, Quebec has 78 seats, only 18 on island of Montreal. Ontario has 121 seats, only 25 in 416 while in BC, 42 seats, only six in Vancouver proper. So you cannot be a rural only party like Tories largely are, but rural + suburbs is sufficient for Tories just as urban + suburbs are for Liberals.

      • Ron Benn says:

        Mr. Lunn, majority governments can be won with a variety of combinations and permutations of riding demographics. I am not debating the arithmetic. Rather I am looking at the probability of success.

        Sometimes majorities are not so much “won” as “defaulted” due to implosions by the alternatives. That is my take on the Harper majority, when the Liberals came in a distant 3rd place. The NDP seats in Quebec were the result of a “none of the above” vote re the Bloc, Liberals and Conservatives.

        By actively seeking the support of the social conservative membership to win the Conservative leadership, Erin O’Toole has made it difficult to compete for the urban vote. He may have effectively surrendered about 15% of the seats in the House of Commons that are in the larger urban areas, which are not limited to just the densest parts of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver – Ottawa/Gatineau is another 10 seats. The cut off between urban and suburban is a question of opinion than precision.

        The path to a majority Conservative government will need to rely on generating even more seats in the suburban settings than they have in the recent past. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not likely in my opinion.

  2. the real Sean says:

    Canadians have no choice but to vote for endless corruption and endless deficits because it can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the other guy will not one day accidentally almost form a thought that abortion laws aren’t perfect.

  3. The Doctor says:

    I actually think his “defund the CBC” pledge might be a more serious problem for him in an election campaign. For a conservative party to win power, it needs the votes of Red Tories and some Blue Liberals. Those are precisely the kind of people who tend to like the CBC. It reminds me of that stupid fucking thing that Harper did with the census, which was aimed at people who were already in the CPC’s camp and unnecessarily alienated people that Harper needed to win. Way to narrow your tent.

    There’s a certain strain of conservative out there, both here and in the US, who thinks that small-tent politics is really clever. Usually it’s really stupid IMO.

    • Warren says:

      I deeply hate the CBC for making my personal life fodder a few months ago. But I still listen to CBC radio. I’d like to keep that around.

      • Spend says:

        There needs to be a royal commission on the public broadcaster. An open process to lay on the table the 21st century realities and to define a modern mandate.

        That should be O’Toole’s focus, not a blunt defund policy. It is a political win win all the way around.

      • Mark D says:

        I would like to see CBC transformed into an English version of Radio-Canada. I have never understood how what is the same Crown corporation (if I am not mistaken) produces such wildly uneven content between the English and the French.

        I would not shed a tear if Conservatives pulled the plug on CBC. On the other hand, Radio-Canada is my “go to” station for French content.

  4. You may be on to something. The MacKay-Orchard thing never really sat well with the membership — not because they had any love for a tourist in the party, to use Clark’s phrase — but because fundamentally it was a question of keeping one’s word once given. We will never know how much that hurt MacKay.

    I told O’Toole’s people that he should have been himself in this run. Sure, it was tactically brilliant but what are the electorate to think of him, especially those who are looking for any reason not to vote Liberal?

    Erin has got the Mother of All Selling Jobs to do ahead. Hope O’Toole’s up to it otherwise it’s four more years of this Prime Minister.

  5. Robin says:

    Urban demographics indicates another Trudeau majority. Only the complete and utter collapse of the economy can change that, and it will take at least another term under a Trudeau majority to do that.

    • Robin,

      The Liberals are a wobbly 35%, at best, in recent polls. Not sure they can count on that coveted majority.

      • Douglas W says:

        Wobbly is a very good word to describe the current support of the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats.

        That said, Liberal support, still very strong in the GTA and its 50-plus seats.
        Same holds true, Atlantic Canada. Greater Montreal and Greater Vancouver.

        Tough areas to crack for the Conservatives.
        They’d be wise to play for time. Like into next Spring.

        If I were Justin, I’d call a vote next week.

  6. Jim R says:

    And for a different take, see Andrew Coyne’s article at:
    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-temptation-of-erin-otoole/

    I’m inclined to Coyne’s view, for now.

  7. MacKay insulted a lot to people in the party with his “stinking albatross” comments. That came back to bite him in the ass in a big way. I have always thought of MacKay as a bit of a lightweight. IMHO, he was kept around to appease the old PC crowd. There’s no need for that now. He’s been out of politics too long, I don’t think he ran a particularily competent leadership campaign and it turns out he was actually the guy who was unable to score on an open net. The party voting procedures were heavily weighed to favour candidates who were not from Western Canada, which should have been to his advantage. Hopefully, the old PC/Joe Clark element will be finally purged and we can get on with preparing for the future.

  8. Douglas W says:

    O’Toole needs a savvy team of effective strategic thinkers to counter Team Trudeau.

    Coming up with an advantageous ballot box question and keeping it at the forefront (throughout the entire campaign) will be the Conservatives’ biggest challenge once the election is called.

    • Douglas,

      I’ve mentioned who I would go with before. But I would add that Harper’s 2006 campaign strategic thinkers, including Plett should be added to that number.

      • Douglas W says:

        Fred DeLorey + Alupa Clarke: bright strategic thinkers.

        They’re going to have to have their A game goin’, from Day One.

        Plus, they’ll need luck on their side: a big-time stumble on the campaign trail from Justin.

        It’s bound to happen.
        When?

        • Douglas,

          I found DeLorey to be very impressive. While I was suggesting that Team MacKay run their leadership race like Wynne did, DeLorey was actually doing it. You all remember who got the surprise of her life against Wynne, well, ditto for MacKay. I was for buying the other candidates off, pronto. MacKay’s team was quite simply outclassed and outmanoeuvered by DeLorey and Company.

          As for Clarke, it took guts to go one way, with lesser odds, while most of the Quebec caucus went another. I’ll give him that.

  9. whyshouldIsellyourwheat says:

    The Conservative Party leadership selection mechanism was advocated for by Peter MacKay and was his main condition for the merger with the Reform Party. He lost by the rules he wrote.

    The federal Liberals use the same process now.

  10. Miles Lunn says:

    I think this is a bigger problem for Conservatives in general is to win nomination, you have to run well to right of median voter. You run leadership campaign as moderate like MacKay did, you won’t win party nomination. As most of base wrongly believes you can on a right wing platform or doesn’t care. Problem is to win general election you need to pull back to centre.

    Liberals will undoubtedly in their attack ads clip a lot of O’Toole’s more right wing musings and that could backfire. This strategy only makes sense when approval rating of governing party is so low that they are going to lose no matter what. And Trudeau is still a long ways from reaching that point. Now if O’Toole is skilled enough he can overcome this, but won’t be easy.

    • Miles,

      And besides, what do most parties do with most platforms come election day? Let me be polite: they ahem, ignore it.

    • The Doctor says:

      Miles, you’re absolutely right. It has to do with partisan blinders, bias and bubbles. Most right-wing people think the electorate is more right-wing than it really is, and most left-liberal people think the electorate is more left-liberal than it really is.

      Two cases in point: (a) these people on Breitbart who insist that Trump’s real approval rating is 80% because they don’t know anybody who supports Biden; and (b) that famous quote from Paulene Kael after Nixon won a landslide victory in 1972, that she didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.

  11. William R Morrison says:

    “it is fair to wonder if the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada believes in anything at all.”

    He believes that Trudeau is really bad for this country, and he’s certainly not the only one.

  12. Gilbert says:

    Erin O’Toole simply needs to assure Canadians that he’s not an ultraconservative and that he won’t legislate on matters of morality. Then he needs to show that he’s the right person to be PM: serious, hard-working and intelligent. He can also shows he accepts people with views that differ from his own. If he succeeds, he can win.

    • Will he be able to convince people he is serious about climate change? That is a prerequisite for many Canadians.

      • Darwin,

        Yeah, I won’t be betting the farm on that one either.

        • Perhaps I need to rephrase since our host has not yet moderated my previous comment: in a nutshell, Conservatives generally and this leader particularly will be seen by many like the weak link in the environmental chain, largely due to the tenure of the Harper government. As Darwin mentions, without a credible, serious and thoughtful policy on climate change across the board, the CPC is quite literally throwing away votes that we desperately need to form a majority government. I hope Erin gets that.

    • Robert White says:

      O’Toole is a lawyer by trade. No Canadian lawyer would attempt to legislate matters of morality unless they were no longer interested in being a litigator or politician practicing in Canada. One cannot legislate morality.

      RW

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