Can O'Toole's Losing Strategy Work?
May 1st, 2021 | CW
Erin O’Toole has successfully pulled a Patrick Brown on the national stage. He rebranded himself as a “True Blue” Conservative in order to contrast himself with Peter MacKay during the leadership contest, only to completely renege on that brand upon winning. Now he’s moving the party to the “centre”, which is a progressive dog whistle for “left” and scorching the “Conservative” brand as a result.
Why do this?
The general consensus is that Andrew Scheer blew an “easy win” in 2019 because of his social conservatism. This is the narrative that was aggressively sold by the mainstream media and gleefully picked up by Red Tories within the CPC. It is now commonly understood that in order for the CPC to be competitive, the party has to move to the left side of the centre.
Stephen Harper successfully implemented this strategy when he became the leader of the CPC in 2003. Harper’s Chamber of Commerce brand was much more moderate compared with Stockwell Day’s conservative pedigree and Harper was encouraged throughout his tenure to moderate more.
There are a few lessons worth noting here.
1. Harper didn’t win his majority until he completely jettisoned fiscal conservatism
Harper was very much formed in the 90’s and had the boomer-con notion of “balanced budgets are respected by voters”. When the financial crisis hit in late 2008 and it looked like Stephane Dion’s coalition of leftists were going to take over the government, so Harper reluctantly capitulated on spending and undertook what at the time was the biggest deficit fuelled spending spree in Canadian history.
When the shock amongst fiscal conservatives wore off, a funny thing happened:voters loved it.
It showed the average voter that the Conservative Party of Canada “had their back” and was willing to spend like drunken sailors for the good of the country. Harper MPs and Senators began to love the accolades for showing up in communities with novelty sized cheques at press conferences in order to announce new spending initiatives.
Realizing that the average rube didn’t know the difference between a million and a billion meant that they could parse out spending initiatives with dribs and drabs of million-dollar announcements constantly… gaining press and good will with each appearance.
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People love “free” money. A big government spending even bigger money means that the politicians are “doing something” to improve life for people. Harper successfully won over the natural leftists with his deficits and this propelled him to a majority.
2. Harper lost in 2015 because he balanced the budget
Harper learned the consensus lesson of the 90s that deficits were unacceptable in the long-term and the government that wrangles the budget achieves credibility and respect in the hearts and minds of voters. Never mind that Jean Chrétien really only won an accidental majority in 1997 due to a fantastic amount of vote splitting. The political lesson that was learned back then was that “everyone agreed that balanced budgets are required”.
They were wrong.
Voters had many reasons to vote out Harper in 2015, but the key lesson everyone should have learned was that an unqualified dilettante promising deficits handily beat Harper and his promising of balanced budgets. In fact, Harper’s deficit actions from 2009-2014 simply trained voters to associate effective government that “cares about people”…with big deficit spending. Harper engineered his own doom.
3. Andrew Scheer was Harper with a smile
It’s hard to remember it now, but when Andrew Scheer was elected leader in 2017, Conservative Party members mostly felt that the reason Harper lost in 2015 was because he was too boring and stiff next to Justin Trudeau’s zany Captain Canada flamboyance. Harper was our Richard Nixon and Trudeau is our Barack Obama. What we really need, or so people thought… was someone exactly like Stephen Harper, but younger and friendly. You know, likeHarper, but with a smile.
So, we got Harper with a smile… more of a smirk really, but nobody’s perfect.
Despite having the same rhetoric regarding social conservatism that Harper used for ten years, everyone now seems to believe that it was the social conservatism that ruined his campaign. It was likely a mix of things including: his American citizenship; his horrible marketing team (remember the picture of him shaking hands with a “voter” and giving a thumbs up with his other hand? Everything his team put out was cringe); hiring Warren Kinsella (allegedly) to smear Maxime Bernier; a campaign with nothing interesting offered; bad debate performance; embellishing his pre-political career as an insurance “agent”; looking like a kid dressed in his Dad’s suit; and…trying to sell balanced budgets against every other political party promising to spend, spend, spend!
Scheer’s recycling of Harper’s fiscal conservatism was his biggest doom, but the consensus is still that social conservatism is the problem.
What do the critics mean by “social conservatism” anyway? They mean abortion and gay stuff. Anything less than Canada’s policy of unrestricted, taxpayer funded, mass abortion is viewed as beyond the pale. Anything less than full volume cheerleading for anything homosexual is viewed as beyond the pale. You can maybe throw transsexual issues in the mix now too, but the whole LGBQT-LMNOP alphabet rainbow coalition must be celebrated without reservation.
All the other facets of social conservatism are less relevant in the culture debate, such as: gun rights; children’s rights; family policy; end of life care; prostitution; drug policy; law and order; criminal sentencing; property rights; freedom of religion; free speech; education curriculum; and civil rights.
"When the shock amongst fiscal conservatives wore off, a funny thing happened: voters loved it."
Anyone taking a conservative stance on any of this stuff is expected to shut up and sit down and stop trying to impose their views on people. Anyone taking a liberal stance on any of this stuff is just obviously a correct thinking “centrist” individual.
Since Erin O’Toole is going all in on making the CPC the party of ‘just obviously correct thinking centrist individuals’…where does that leave him? As John Robson has noted,too much of Canadian conservatism is just ‘Me Too’ Liberal Party, with “Yes, but” policies. They’ll adjust to all their critics castigations and jump through the hoops that are provided to them by people who will never vote for them anyway. As they debase their principles and hope for approvals from their progressive betters, conservative voters will cringe cast their votes for the CPC nonetheless, but it likely won’t matter.
Justin Trudeau coming off Covid with a massive, ambitious and inspirational deficit-riddled budget will tickle the hearts and minds of Canadian voters coast to coast. We’ll be looking at a massive Liberal majority whenever the next campaign begins and Erin O’Toole will be cucking his way into the history books of failed opposition leaders.
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