Can you lose by winning?
It's not a riddle, it's a fair question. Surveying the wreckage that now litters the Conservative landscape, it's a timely question, too.
Because, make no mistake: the Conservatives' leadership race has dramatically set back their party, perhaps for years to come. Among other things, it has revealed the once-great Conservative Party of Canada to be nasty, brutish and short-sighted. It has transformed a modern, broad-based political party into a posse of xenophobic, paranoid Duck Dynasty types -- rubes who look like they'd rather jail an immigrant than attend a banquet with one.
Leadership candidates participate in the Conservative Party French language leadership debate, Tuesday, January 17, 2017 in Quebec City. (Photo: Jacques Boissinot/CP)
By selecting a winner, the Conservative Party of Canada has rendered itself a loser, and wholly undeserving of power.
Some historical context.
Stephen Harper's greatest political achievements, you see, were not what you would think. They weren't the things that he didn't do. Five points.
One, he didn't outlaw abortion or gay marriage, contrary to what this writer (and many others) predicted. Two, he didn't make the great global recession of 2008-2009 worse. While he may have initially denied the recession was coming, when it did, Harper tossed off his fiscal conservative cape, and commenced spending like a proverbial drunken sailor. It worked.
Three, he didn't send us into war. When he was Opposition leader, Harper infamously called Canadians who opposed George W. Bush's Iraq war "cowards." But, once ensconced in power, the Conservative prime minister embraced his inner peacenik: he didn't put boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS -- Justin Trudeau did. And he didn't deploy Canadian Forces in the most lethal region in Afghanistan -- Paul Martin did.
Stephen Harper waves as he gives his concession speech after Canada's federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Four, Stephen Harper -- unlike so many in the Reform Party firmament -- didn't ignore Quebec, or preside over a revitalized separatist movement. Instead, he started every single speech with French, no matter where he was. He didn't give the always-humiliated nationalists their hoped-for humiliations. And, as a result, his party didn't do badly in Quebec, at all -- in 2015, in fact, when the CPC lost power, the only province in which they grew was Quebec.
Fifth and final, Stephen Harper didn't wreck the place. We're still here. And, when one considers the post-Brexit and post-Trump chaos that has descended on the heads of our two closest allies -- well, we are pretty lucky, aren't we?
But those things -- what Stephen Harper didn't do -- aren't achievements. You don't get awards for what you don't do. You don't get your name on the side of a school somewhere for acting like a sensible, centrist adult. That's what you are supposed to be doing in the first place.
No, Stephen Harper's two greatest political achievements -- and, by extension, the Conservative party's -- were the reason why he won in 2006, and again in 2008, and again in 2011. They are simply these:
He united the warring factions within the conservative movement -- Reform, Progressive Conservative, Canadian Alliance -- and led them to power shortly thereafter.
The Conservative leadership race has been fractious and divisive.
He rejected the sort of intolerance that had been synonymous with Canadian conservativism since Sir John A. -- and expelled the bigots from his caucus, and commenced the most successful "ethnic outreach" campaign in modern times.
So, what has the post-Harper Conservative Party done? It has turned its back on Stephen Harper's two greatest achievements. It has repudiated the very things that won them power in 2006.
The Conservative leadership race has been fractious and divisive. It has seen progressive conservatives like Michael Chong booed for promoting modernism -- and unrepentant Reformers, like Kellie Leitch, cheered for championing racism. It has seen smart, traditional PCs like Lisa Raitt marginalized and ignored, and immigrant-baiting nobodies like Steven Blaney and Brad Trost given marquee treatment.
And, if the 2016-2017 Conservative leadership race is to be remembered for anything at all, it will be its willingness to replicate Donald Trump-style bigotry in Canada -- and the narrow, mean-spirited bumper-sticker politics it has championed along the way. Too many of their leadership candidates have forsaken what Stephen Harper did. Too many have forgotten that, by coming together and bringing new Canadians into the Conservative fold, the Conservatives finally won power.
The Conservative Party will have a winner in its leadership race in May, to be sure. It will have won that much.
But, by winning, it will have lost the country, likely for many years to come.
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