The newspapers today are loaded with stories suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is now the front-runner for the Conservative party leadership. For all the reasons outlined by Andrew Coyne, I don’t think it will happen. Not because Canada is necessarily morally exceptional (something we’ll be debating here at MISC next month) but because the systemic barriers are bigger here. It’s just harder to take over the Conservatives than it was for Trump to take over the GOP.
But since you never know what might happen, I think it’s worth making a few points about his candidacy.
Whether it was craftiness or cowardice , O’Leary’s decision to enter the race the morning after the french-language debate was clearly deliberately timed. And didn’t we all spend yesterday talking about him? Combined with Justin Trudeau’s brain cramp in Sherbrooke, it raised once again the question of official bilingualism and whether one “has” to be bilingual to lead a major political party in this country.
It’s annoying to have to rehearse all of these arguments yet again, but here we are. So first, there is no rule that says you have to be bilingual to be prime minister. There’s no rule that says you have to speak any language at all. It’s just extremely politically advisable, in the same way that carrying a bible and pretending you are religious is politically advisable for US presidents. Colby Cosh goes through the requisite motions here.
The related, but different question, is whether it is morally required of political leaders that they be able to function in both official languages. That is, even if it were politically possible for a unilingual leader to manage to win an election, would there still be a moral constraint upon them? That is, would they have a moral duty to try to learn the other language?
That’s a more difficult question, and I’m not sure where I stand on it. Part of me tends to think it’s just politics all the way down — that if some day a unilingual Mandarin-speaking leader came along who could manage to form a government in this country, then so be it for the official languages. There’s also the analogy (and some overlap) with regional representation: To take an example, when Pierre Trudeau was able to form a majority government with no representation west of Manitoba, that was a political reality. But did it violate some underling political morality of representation?
But there’s a disanalogy: Canada is an officially bilingual country. It has been, to some extent, since before Confederation. This is not just a “political fact” – French and English language protections and guarantees are baked into the constitution. The fact that a bunch of unilingual Conservatives seem to have woken up one morning and thought to themselves, “hey maybe I’ll try to be prime minister” speaks to a fundamental lack of seriousness about politics. But whether that lack of seriousness is theirs, or ours, is unclear.
2. Just visiting
There’s not much to say here. Kevin O’Leary lives in Boston, and has done so, according to Kevin O’Leary, since 1992. He claimed in an interview in October to live in the US 181 days a year.
So there’ll be a just-visiting issue. It’s not just the “who do you think you are?” tetchiness. It’s that politics is largely about instinct, about understanding the country’s dynamic in a way that transcends polling or reading the newspaper. This comes from having steeped in a country’s culture, fought in the country’s fights, gloried in its glories, and shared in its tragedies. There’s no indication O’Leary has any of this to offer.
I might be wrong, but I think it’s a problem for him just as much as it was a problem for Ignatieff, in all the ways it was a problem.
What’s weird about O’Leary’s candidacy is that apart from his econ 101 enthusiasms for free markets, it’s not clear what else is conservative about him. In fact, last year, he rebuffed comparisons to Donald Trump and openly pondered running for the leadership of the Liberals — a position he seemed to think might become open by the next election. He’s pro-peacekeeping but generally anti-military. He’s not worried about immigration or terrorism, has no interest in social conservatism, loves the CBC, and isn’t into nativist-style politics.
Yet despite this, it seems obvious that having decided to run that he would run for the Tories, to the point that while many seem to think he has a shot at the Conservative leadership, he wouldn’t have a hope if running for the Liberals. Why is this?
The answer, uncomfortable as it is, is that Kevin O’Leary is, according to people who know him well, a jerk. And contemporary conservatism has, for better or for worse, made itself into the natural home for jerks.
One of my favourite piece of Joe’s is an old Policy Options column he wrote about the twin problems facing the left and the right: While the left has to deal with the people who are left wing because they have a victim complex, the right has to struggle with those who are conservative because they are simply jerks.
Yet as a sign of how things have changed, it’s interesting that the animating assumption of Joe’s argument is that the route to electoral success for both sides of the spectrum lies in keeping these members of your constituency under control. The left needs to avoid pandering to the professional victims, while the right needs to keep the jerks sidelined.
Well, because it’s 2017, Bernie Sanders almost won the Dem nomination and Donald Trump is about to be president. To the extent that Kevin O’Leary is bringing any of the American dynamic to the Canadian scene, it is in actively courting the jerk constituency.
If I were a serious member of the Conservative leadership, I’d be doing anything I could to keep him and the other jerk-courtiers like Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander sidelined. If I were a rank and file Conservative, I’d be wondering why my party seems to attract jerk-courtiers in the first place.