A few thoughts on the Conservative leadership race

A few quick and somewhat scattered thoughts on the Conservative leadership race:

-The results demonstrate that the media almost completely misread the race from the get-go. This has become something of a theme in the past few years, though in the other notable instances it’s the more orthodox candidates and narratives that have fallen victim to media misperception and suffered in the final result (here, a relatively orthodox candidate with caucus support ended up winning, contra the dominant media narratives).

-At least four candidates got considerable press, beginning with Kellie Leitch and followed by Kevin O’Leary and Maxime Bernier (with Michael Chong standing in as the ostensibly respectable figure boasting cross-partisan appeal). Without exception, punditry and reporting was moderately to wildly off in its framing/characterization of these campaigns and their overall standing among the public and the CPC rank and file.

-The most notable case here is Kellie Leitch, whose race-baiting immediately won her a Macleans cover story and fostered hyperbolic media narratives about a “culture war” ignored or misunderstood by elites. This turned out to be completely incorrect. Leitch’s donor base (which I wrote an investigation about some months ago) was overwhelmingly wealthy and Toronto-centric and her 7th-place finish suggests that even considerable help from the Ontario PC party machinery couldn’t win her significant support within the Conservative base. Given this, it’s quite extraordinary Leitch received so much attention and that the media was willing to legitimize her candidacy to the extent that it did.

-Kevin O’Leary’s candidacy was harder to read than Leitch’s, but it seems quite obvious in retrospect that he wasn’t really prepared to make a serious effort at winning the job. His less than 20-week career in Canadian politics will be little more than a footnote to a footnote. What a joke.

-Both Chong and Bernier enjoyed a real constituency among op-ed writers, largely thanks to their mutual willingness to speak wonkishly about riveting topics from carbon taxes to dairy-market deregulation. For different reasons, this attention proved to be misplaced.

-As for Chong it should have been perfectly obvious how small the constituency was for his bipartisan pitch (same-sex marriage OK, carbon taxes GOOD, etc.) the main reason being that there already exists another political party reflecting these very principles (“socially liberal but fiscally conservative”[!!!!]). Why a figure like Scott Gilmore is trying to drum up support for a new party along these lines while one already exists is simply beyond me.

-As for Bernier we were almost universally assured by the various opinion-makers of #cdnpoli that his victory was inevitable. (True, the Conservative voting process is complex and somewhat inscrutable. But that the actual winner Andrew Scheer was barely on the radar is testament to just how badly the media misread this thing.) Bernier’s initial pitch seemed targeted mainly at Campus Conservative types (especially of the bowie-wearing variety) and the more wonkish denizens of the pundit brigade (the types of op-ed writers who have turned agitated thinkpieces about supply-management into a cottage industry). That this latter constituency is so easily seduced speaks volumes, given that several of Bernier’s other positions are so transparently ridiculous (e.g. bringing back the Gold Standard). Late in his campaign, Bernier clearly recognized that the wind was blowing in a more alt-rightish direction and pivoted appropriately. While this got him enough votes to nearly carry the thing, some of his more eccentric policy positions seem to have alienated potential support in caucus – which probably helped secure the relatively bland (but also SoCon-approved) Scheer the leadership crown.

-Scheer seems very much in the mould of Stephen Harper, as in: a figure with quite conservative instincts and beliefs that will largely be overridden in the pursuit of respectability. The Conservative message in Parliament and across the country seems unlikely to change (i.e. that the Liberals are a tax-and-spend regime whose deficits will plunge the country into debt, etc, etc.). This messaging often helps the Liberals reinforce their core narrative with progressive voters (that they’re pro-middle class and pro-activist government, neither of which is really true). Plus ça change…

-The Conservative Party remains what it’s been since inception: a centre-right coalition that houses SoCon and libertarian factions and is committed to an agenda of tax and spending cuts and right wing nationalism.

In other words, the story here seems less about the actual result and more about what the paid opinion-makers got wrong. The status quo in Canadian politics will continue for now but may find itself disrupted at any time, particularly as global events unfold.

If such a shift does happen, on the right or left or both, don’t go looking for a good account of it in a mainstream newspaper.

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