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Andrew Scheer’s anti-elitist role model

The new Tory leader invoked John Diefenbaker’s story this week. He should be careful—it’s really more a cautionary tale.
Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer talks with media in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Matthew Usherwood/CP)
Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer talks with media in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Matthew Usherwood/CP)
Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer talks with media in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Matthew Usherwood/CP)

Who can blame Andrew Scheer for invoking the memory of John Diefenbaker? As Scheer reminded Conservative MPs and senators this week—when he spoke to them for the first time since winning the party’s leadership—he is following in Dief’s footsteps as an Ontario-bred Tory who transplanted himself to Saskatchewan. Given the parallel, a generous dollop of identification is inevitable.

Still, Scheer’s choice of a Diefenbaker anecdote with which to regale his caucus caught me up short. He told of how the Chief, facing the bitter end of his era as Tory leader at the party’s 1967 convention, offered the explanation that he “had been criticized for being too concerned with hardworking Canadians.” Scheer finished up his predecessor’s story: “But he was unapologetic. ‘I can’t help that,’ he said, ‘I’m one of them.’ ”

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Even by Diefenbaker’s standards, that was some virtuosic self-pitying self-aggrandizement. History, to be fair, records how he forged a deep bond with many voters in his late-1950s election triumphs. But the notion of him as humble stand-in for the hardworking guy is unintentionally funny. Peter C. Newman, in the political classic Renegade In Power, wrote that a lifetime of striving for high office ultimately left Diefenbaker so obsessed with his destiny to govern that he campaigned “virtually on metaphysical grounds.”

Talk about entitlement. Scheer’s Diefenbaker yarn is no less telling, though, for being so inapt. It underlines what’s been, at least so far, the new Conservative leader’s key message. In the leadership contest, Scheer left it to Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong to voice politically risky ideas, and to Erin O’Toole to offer detailed policy. Scheer’s pitch relies far more on the self-image of Conservatives as inherently in close communion—or much closer than Liberals, anyway—with plain folks.

“We’re the party of Canadians who work hard, who make sacrifices to secure a better future for their kids. That’s who we are, that’s who we fight for. We’re never going to change,” he told his caucus. “The Liberals can take their cues from the cocktail circuit. We will take ours from the minivans, from the soccer fields, the Legion halls and the grocery stores.”

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So, just what do Canadians say they want from Ottawa when they’re riding in those practical vehicles, or standing on the sidelines during long scoreless stretches, or enjoying a reasonably priced beer, or chatting with a friend they bumped into in the frozen-food aisle? In front of caucus, Scheer chose to repeat again several key pledges he apparently thinks will resonate.

He’d send Canadian fighter jets back into combat against ISIS. He’d penalize universities where touchy subjects aren’t freely debated. He wouldn’t put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, and, for good measure, he would lift the GST from home-heating bills. Oh, and he’d somehow balance the budget.

The direct line between that partial list and the priorities of middle-class families is not all that easy to draw, although I’m sure they’d take the home-heating tax break. I think Scheer’s claim about speaking for regular Canadians is more about something beyond specific policies, though—something related hazily to his Diefenbaker lore, something about that retro-sounding “cocktail circuit” the Liberals supposedly frequent.

The notion that voters must ultimately recognize Liberals for snobs is devoutly held by many Conservatives. That was an easy conviction to cling to through much of the Stephen Harper era. But Conservatives should remind themselves: Harper had a pretty easy time of it seeming more relatable than Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Justin Trudeau is another matter.

The fact is that Trudeau is a superb campaigner. If it were just his good looks and his family name, he’d be vulnerable. But he comes across as thrilled to encounter crowds and, even worse for his rivals, that quality loses nothing in the translation to video. He’s consistently effective in a town hall-style sessions. There’s no reason to imagine he will start striking Canadian voters as remote, and his record includes a middle-bracket tax trim and a boost in federal payments to parents.

Conservatives also tend to assign great political advantage to portraying themselves as disdainful of elite status. The late Sen. Doug Finley, who was Harper’s campaign mastermind, once emphasized to me the imperative that Conservatives never allow themselves to feel they are truly at home in power. (Finley told me this with his feet up in his glorious East Block office, which was once Sir John A. Macdonald’s.)

But it’s not at all clear that Canadians prefer folksy outsiders. Harper’s persona, at its best, was about his determined air of confident competence; it was easy to imagine him running the show. Brian Mulroney was about as insidery as they come, and won two majorities. Diefenbaker’s prickly outsider quality, by contrast, didn’t wear at all well. “He could not rid himself,” Newman wrote, “of the distrust he felt for the nation’s economic, social and cultural Establishment.” Many Canadians like to think of their prime minister as at ease in high places.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest Scheer must give up on presenting himself as in tune with real-world concerns, or stop trying to paint Trudeau as too comfortable with the perquisites of power. But his compare-and-contrast strategy isn’t going to work if he relies on resentment, if his platform doesn’t grow into something more clearly relevant to his target audience, and if he underestimates Trudeau’s evident appeal.

Scheer was born in the spring of 1979; Diefenbaker died late that summer. Knowing him only as a historical figure, Scheer should be able to read about his predecessor with some useful detachment. Along with some stump speech anecdotes, there’s a cautionary tale there if the new Conservative leader cares to learn from it.