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Opinion Do Canada’s Conservatives want a cautious leader — or a confrontational one?

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks on Oct. 21, 2019, after being defeated by the Liberal Party at an election night rally in Regina, Saskatchewan. (Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images)

Canada’s mostly progressive commentariat has unified around a single theory to explain what went wrong with the 2019 campaign of outgoing Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer: He was too right-wing. This contrasts sharply with the explanation offered by many Conservative supporters, who feel Scheer lost because he wasn’t right-wing enough. As the contest to pick a new Conservative leader kicks off, the defining challenge for Scheer’s would-be successors is to decide which mutually exclusive version of reality they intend to inhabit.

A sizable crop of leadership candidates will happily compete on what we could call the “media track.” They will run campaigns that presume the Canadian media has been mostly correct in its post-election analysis, endorsing the conclusion that Scheer’s biggest sin was an excess of conservatism, particularly on social issues. As a matter of policy, the Conservative Party is already about as progressive in these areas as a conservative party can be — supporting same-sex marriage, broad anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and unregulated abortion — but those who complain about Scheer’s supposed “stance” on such issues are criticizing personality more than positions.

Scheer was too religious, rural and nerdy, such thinking goes, and thus — superficially, at least — reinforced every repulsive stereotype that skittish voters in suburban Ontario and Quebec have about right-wingers. A Conservative leader who was less Christian, less uptight and less … well, Saskatchewany ... would supposedly be an easier sell. An ideal party boss would identify with secular professionals in the big cities over farmers and preachers. They should be comfortable around LGBT people, not merely tolerant, and proud of legalized abortion, not just resigned to it. They should be happy to talk about marquee progressive causes such as climate change and aggressively denounce those who favor privatizing Medicare or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On the opposite end, there will be a smaller group of what could be called “base track” candidates, who will run campaigns targeting party supporters who reject this whole premise.

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These voters think the Conservative Party has a cultural problem, too, but it’s a problem of forever craving elite approval. They see a party that has already moderated all of its identifiably right-wing positions into mush, only to be told even that isn’t enough.

Conservatives of this bent crave a leader who is proud to think differently from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — not minimize the differences between them. They want the Conservatives to be headed by someone who has less resemblance to the Globe and Mail editorial page than the sort of conservatives you see racking up “likes” for their angry comments on Twitter and Facebook — the sort of people who get genuinely outraged by the actions of the Canadian left, whether it’s the prime minister racking up a $26.6 billion deficit in the year he promised to balance the budget, or the CBC editing Donald Trump out of its broadcast of “Home Alone 2."

This, too, is as much a preference of style as policy. “Base” conservatives are not always clear about how they expect a theoretical future Conservative administration to govern, and as I wrote this month, it’s unlikely any new leader will have many bold ideas on this front. Yet the base still wants someone who’s prepared to channel their anger and not shy away from confrontation with the left in the name of chasing some phantom “electability.”

As it stands, the Conservative contest is still awaiting its first official entrant, but based on current chatter, Rona Ambrose is probably the presumptive favorite of the “media track,” while Pierre Poilievre heads the “base track.”

Ambrose, a former Tory cabinet minister who served as the party’s acting head from 2015 to 2017, has gone out of her way to endorse the media thesis of why Scheer lost. She has bragged on social media about her past attendance in Pride parades and shared on Twitter a harsh anti-Scheer column that declared the “fundamental problem” of the Conservative Party to be a “lack of clarity on LGBTQ rights.” Urbane, moderate and establishment-friendly, Ambrose has earned endorsements from pundits such as the Globe’s Robyn Urback, who thinks the Conservatives need a leader who can “one-up Mr. Trudeau’s feminist slogans with an actual degree in feminist studies and advocacy efforts outside of politics.”

Poilievre, another ex-cabinet minister, seems most likely to emerge as Ambrose’s leading rival from the “base track.” A stubborn and combative personality known for his testy news conferences and furious broadsides in Parliament, he’s loathed by progressives, the media and even many within his party for the same reasons he’s popular with the conservative rank-and-file: He fights. At present, Poilievre’s chances are being ignored by a media preoccupied with wish-casting unlikely centrist saviors for the Conservatives, such as Quebec’s former Liberal premier Jean Charest. In practice, this amounts to “pretending the Conservative base doesn’t exist,” as commentator Spencer Fernando recently put it.

The base is not going anywhere, however. Indeed, the Conservative Party is one of the few leading institutions of Canadian society that remains firmly in the hands of those who reject the progressive orthodoxies that reign elsewhere. The emergence of a Conservative leader who would rather be feared by his rivals than loved by her enemies might be one of the most under-anticipated Canadian political stories of 2020.

Read more:

J.J. McCullough: Don’t expect change from Canada’s next Conservative leader

J.J. McCullough: What Andrew Scheer’s fall says about Canada’s hypocritical embrace of diversity

David Moscrop: How Trudeau and the Liberals can make their second term a success

Nora Loreto: Why Canada’s hockey culture shouldn’t be a stand-in for its identity

Henry Olsen: The urban-rural divide is defining politics worldwide. Canada’s election is proof.

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