Doug Ford’s long game

A populist shellacking. An anti-elitist barrage. Relentless salvos of Fordian antipolitics. That’s what was expected and initially delivered by Doug Ford following his entry into the mayoral race (Last week? The week before? A week is such a long time in Toronto politics these days…).

For example, here’s a clip of Ford during his first debate, in the populist alpha-male attack mode with which we’re all by now familiar.

The Toronto Star’s John Barber even wrote a remarkable piece of facetious thanks, welcoming Ford’s introduction of “class warfare” into the campaign and declaring:

“Doug Ford’s righteous rage at the enduring power of the Family Compact and its current figurehead is undeniable. It is populism at its finest.”

Indeed, it would be logical to assume that Ford essentially plans to run a slicker version of Little Robbie’s Stop The Gravy Train (with all the associated mantras about “respect for taxpayers” delivered in characteristically bombastic fashion).

But here’s where Doug Ford has confounded expectations. On Monday I tuned into the arts debate expecting to see fireworks (a debate about “the arts” featuring a proud cultural cretin like DoFo? Let the games begin!) and was disappointed. In place of the usual bombast, Ford appeared to exert tremendous effort to look both relaxed and disciplined. In the parts of yesterday’s [two] mayoral debates that I observed he showed the same unusual restraint.

It’s not that his messaging has changed or that the usual populism is absent. For example, Ford managed to invoke Tory’s wealth during the arts debate and still likes to riff on the ostensible elitist/populist dichotomy which has hitherto been his primary theme. His new radio ads attacking Tory are also sprinkled with some populist seasoning.

But what has been most striking about Doug Ford’s performance so far is its remarkable discipline and effort to look like a credible, fiscally conservative alternative to what’s being offered by John Tory. One of the two new ads attacks his “Smartrack” proposal by citing criticisms from, of all places, the Globe and Mail (hardly a publication in line with Fordian orthodoxy).

Assuming this more disciplined Doug Ford endures, the only conclusion I can draw is that there’s more to the RoFo/DoFo switcharoo than initially meets the eye. After all, what does the new standard bearer for Ford Nation gain from entering a campaign he’s almost certain to lose? The Fords are certainly not known for their capacity to take electoral defeat or public rejection well.

And yet, into the Valley of Death ride the 600.

What exactly is going on here? We do know that the Fords regard themselves as a Great Political Family™ – “the Canadian Kennedys” – as abjectly weird as that sounds. We’ve heard them muse in the past about having aspirations higher than municipal politics. We also know that Doug Ford was originally slated to be Tim Hudak’s GTA Trojan Horse (the PC election campaign had, at a point prior to the beginning of the crack saga, been going to launch at a rally in Etobicoke built around its “star candidate”, one Doug Ford).

Doug Ford takes questions on the Gardiner Expressway a day after Mayor Rob Ford was on the Jimmy Kimmel Show

The Ford brand may be politically toxic, but it is also remarkably resilient. In June the PC Party lost its only foothold in Toronto with the decisive defeat of Doug Holyday in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Tim Hudak understood, as every PC leader must, that power is impossible without a base here. With a leadership campaign to replace him underway the Toronto question is once again, ineluctably, on the table. Leading contenders like Christine Elliott and Patrick Brown will have to demonstrate to activists that they have both rural and urban (or, more accurately, suburban) appeal.

Of course, this may all be idle speculation: But a Doug Ford who can appear credible in the Toronto mayoral race (and even, perhaps, magnanimous in defeat) while unleashing his populism in carefully controlled bursts might also try to make the case that he’s just what the PCs are looking for.

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