Ontario’s PCs and American Republicans have more in common than meets the eye.
Ten days ago Rob Ford resurfaced to endorse the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership bid of Monte McNaughton – a little known ultra-conservative MPP from Southwestern Ontario who wants to lead the PC party into the next provincial election.
Here was a Tory leadership candidate trumpeting an endorsement from a man roundly criticized as a menace to the conservative movement.
And yet, Ford’s McNaughton endorsement wasn’t so different from U.S TV personality Glenn Beck’s endorsement of Michelle Bachmann in 2011 – a GOP Tea Party presidential primary candidate wildly outside the U.S. mainstream.
Bachmann welcomed the endorsement from the incendiary icon strongly implying her brand of populist conservatism represented millions of Republicans voters.
Which got me thinking: maybe the Ford and Beck endorsements were not so unusual. After all, these are iconic figures whose mere words could move votes to one candidate over another.
But here’s the thing: the value of these endorsements to their respective candidates is indicative of two conservative parties that have changed substantively over the past ten years — namely, in their movement further and further to the right, away from mainstream voters.
There are two key factors that have held the PC and Republicans’ rightward course while also entrenching their penchant for wedge issue politics and tawdry populism.
The first factor is the sheer number of leadership and primary campaigns that have swung the parties’ doors open to a range of Tea Party-style candidates — candidates who have provoked policy and cultural debates typically anathema to the North American body politic.
Rockefeller Republicans and Red Tories alike have been overshadowed by a cast of Tea Party emissaries brashly calling for dramatically less government intervention in the economy, a crackdown on ‘foreign workers’ and a return to 1960s-era social norms including overturning Roe v. Wade in the U.S. and ripping up recent changes to the sex-ed curriculum in Ontario.
Whether it be social conservatives like Monte McNaughton and Patrick Brown in Ontario or reactionaries Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry south of the border, a mere decade ago such candidacies among these two parties would have been deemed inconceivable.
And while none of the aforementioned candidates have yet to be crowned leader, they’re exerting a mounting influence on the conservative movement’s fabric, strategic goals, and modus operandi.
Relative moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney have been pressured to cater to the Tea Party to seal their respective nominations. Come general election time, they’ve emerged as ‘born again’ moderates attempting to appeal to the broader electorate.
But as McCain and Romney’s clear defeats demonstrate, swing-voters in the U.S. haven’t been fooled by this strategy, opting instead to vote Democrat in 2008 and 2012.
And presumptive Republican candidate Jeb Bush faces the same problem today. A strong candidate with broad appeal, GOP strategists worry his views on immigration reform and his strong support for ‘Common Core State Standards’ – a set of nationalized educational standards – render him too liberal for his party’s apoplectic base.
And while Red Tory Christine Elliot appears to be leading the pack in the ongoing Ontario PC leadership contest, Elliot will feel pressure to pander to powerful right wing factions within her party should she prevail.
The second key factor that has thrust a sharp rightward turn on the PC and Republican parties has been their lengthy time outside government.
Once out of office, political parties tend to lose perspective. They’re less pragmatic and more ideological; less grounded in the daily realities of governing and more prone to special interests.
Both the PCs and GOP have fallen victim to this opposition mentality, lambasting the politically and economically risky stimulus programs initiated by Obama and McGuinty in 2009.
But what was the alternative?
To allow entire North American industries to collapse overnight? To face unprecedented unemployment numbers not seen since the Great Depression? In short, to do nothing?
As Obama shrewdly put it in a 2012 presidential debate, had Mitt Romney occupied the White House in 2009, he would have allowed General Motors and Chrysler to fend for themselves amid bankruptcy.
In Ottawa, even the Harper government adopted a pragmatic approach partnering with the Ontario government to inject unprecedented stimulus dollars into the province’s economy – a plan Ontario’s PCs loudly opposed.
The GOP’s shortsightedness reached a new threshold in October 2013 when 32 Republican lawmakers triggered an unprecedented 16-day federal government shutdown in Washington D.C. In Ontario, Tim Hudak’s PCs boasted three years in a row they would oppose the Liberal government’s budget before even reading it.
As Ontario PCs and the GOP look ahead to the current leadership contests before them – not to mention upcoming general elections – they each confront an identity crisis.
While losing their philosophical cohesion, they have also jettisoned the powerful political brands once synonymous with Ronald Reagan’s conservatism or Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.
The good news for the conservatives is that political movements are volatile and can change overnight due to formative events or political defeats.
Citizens deserve moderate, credible alternatives come election time. And they will surely warrant a competent alternative to the Wynne Liberals and Clinton Democrats in 2016 and 2018. Unfortunately for the PCs and GOP, their current approaches to politics mean that they might have to lose yet another election before this lesson hits home.
*The Ontario PCs will hold their second leadership debate in London, Ontario on Monday evening. Perez will be live tweeting Monday’s debate. Follow him on Twitter @andrewaperez*
Andrew Perez is a freelance columnist covering politics and public policy. Andrew’s work has appeared in the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, London Free Press, The Hill Times, iPolitics and the featured opinion section of National Newswatch.
Andrew has worked on Parliament Hill for government and opposition MPs through the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Programme, completed a fellowship on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and most recently worked in the Ontario Premier’s Office. He has worked on numerous Ontario Liberal campaigns. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto.