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‘A mix of style and substance that is correct for the moment’: J.J. McCullough explains Poilievre’s appeal

Podcast & Video

In this episode of Hub Dialogues, host Sean Speer is joined by Washington Post columnist J.J. McCullough to discuss next month’s Conservative Party leadership election.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Washington Post columnist and popular past guest, J.J. McCullough. We previously spoke in May but didn’t get around to discussing the Conservative Party leadership race. I’m grateful to have him back to discuss the campaign and its various dynamics in the lead-up to next month’s vote.

J.J., once again, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: Last time you were on the podcast, we discussed your worldview and some big-picture questions about Canadian democracy and society. Today, I’m proposing something a bit different, what Jonah Goldberg likes to call “rank punditry.” I thought that it was timely to discuss all things Conservative leadership race now that we’re finally moving towards the big day.

And it seems like a good place to start is the energy around Pierre Poilievre’s campaign. You have a theory that Poilievre, either by intention or happenstance, is giving conservatives precisely what they want in a party leader. Help me and our listeners understand your point. How in your view is Poilievre the right man for the current political moment?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Well, I think Poilievre has a mix of style and substance that is just, you know, correct for the moment. He is very much delivering what I think the base of the party wants. With the last two leaders of the party with Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, there was a bit of a, you know, gritting your teeth and holding your nose and voting in that kind of way, voting in a begrudging sort of way, in a way that was mostly animated by an antipathy for Justin Trudeau. With Pierre Poilievre, for the first time, I think you have a leader that people are actually excited to vote affirmatively for.

And that is something that is quite unique. It is, I suppose, a testament to how low, you know, expectations have gotten in the Conservative Party and in the conservative base in recent years that just having a leader who people like is considered this remarkable phenomenon, that the fact that people are enthusiastically showing up to his rallies and taking pictures with him and, you know, tweeting in favour of him and posting memes in favour of him. Like this kind of stuff, what you would think is baseline of what support for a candidate should look like is now being treated as a remarkable phenomenon.

It’s because what does he do well? He goes after Trudeau in a very prickly, very cold and calculating, and sometimes even borderline cruel, prosecutorial way, which the base likes. The base likes to see Justin Trudeau held accountable for his scandals and his misstatements and just, I think, what is perceived as being the general incompetence of the government. And you know, he also affirmatively is also pushing forward an activist agenda that is, you know, pro-liberty and small government and going after the gatekeepers, which is a brilliant slogan, because it serves as a shorthand for this kind of constellation of statist actors in the Canadian system that conservatives have always detested, whether that’s the CBC or the CRTC. Or, you know, now, we’re seeing the Bank of Canada starting to fulfill that role.

There’s always been a faction of the conservative base that has been pretty skeptical of the Bank of Canada. So, I don’t know, he just seems like he’s doing what, on the one hand, is a pretty masterful political campaign but, on the other hand, is also a kind of, I think, sort of bare minimum of what a successful candidate for prime minister should be able to do, which is appeal to his own party.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s continue discussing the different candidates. Jean Charest’s campaign seems to have bet on the idea that electability would be an overriding calculus on the part of conservative members. His argument about electability has at times been aided by public polling, which seems to show that a Charest-led Conservative Party would, on the margins, outperform a Poilievre-led one.

Maybe a two-part question. One, what did Charest and his team miss in their assumptions about the power of electability? And two, do you even accept the premise that Charest is more electable than Poilievre in the context of a general election campaign?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s difficult. I do think that that is the best argument that the Charest people have in their favour is the electability argument. I mean, I do think though that, again, it’s not really an affirmative case for Charest. It’s kind of a case against Poilievre and what he is seen as embodying. I really do reject the premise fundamentally that people really, on some level, know or care who Charest is or are excited by him and the promise of what he is.

I think this is, I think, a classic example of where I think the pundit class is a little bit out of touch with what your average Canadian on the street thinks. I think that to most Canadians, Jean Charest is a very marginal, very obscure figure in modern Canadian political history. You know, the premier of Quebec is not necessarily a top-of-mind political figure, I think, for most Canadians, let alone the man who was head of the Progressive Conservative Party 30 years ago, right? So, the Charest campaign has always been based on a false premise, which is that he is this beloved elder statesman who’s coming out of retirement and is mobilizing a grateful nation in his favor.

But you know, that said, it is obviously the case as well that Poilievre does come off, as much as he animates the base, he does come off as a very rigid partisan. He comes off ideological in a way that I think the previous two leaders did not. And because he is so combative, he comes off as, I think, a very partisan figure, a very polarizing figure in a similar way that, frankly, Stephen Harper did.

But, that being said, we do know that Stephen Harper managed to win three back-to-back terms despite constantly facing an uphill battle. That was not unlike the criticism that was leveled at Pierre, which is that he is too polarizing, he is too much a man of the hard, cruel, ideological right.

And I think the one other point that I would make though is that it is always important to remember, and, Sean, you’ve made this argument yourself as well, is that the Conservative Party of Canada does not win by being a 50 percent plus one proposition. And that might be a bad thing in the grand scheme of things, but this is also just sort of the harsh reality of the Canadian political system is that you do not need to mobilize a majority in your favour in order to even win a majority government. Basically, the standard is 40 percent.

And can Pierre Poilievre compile a 40 percent coalition? I don’t think that is that unreasonable to assume because it’s just not that high of a bar once you get into the rough and tumble of a campaign, once you’re making the persuasive case for yourself to a general audience, who perhaps haven’t been following the Conservative leadership race all that closely, once prime minister Trudeau has had a couple of more years to grate on the Canadian public. I think that any attempt to determine how the next election will go this early in the game is premature as it always is.

SEAN SPEER: I suppose the last candidate worth talking about is Leslyn Lewis, who, I must admit, J.J., surprised me more than any other candidate in the sense that I anticipated that her anti-abortion politics would perform well amongst the Conservative membership, which is far more pro-life than the general public, and in the race in which she had a completely open field, given that all the other candidates are pro-choice.

Yet Lewis has run a different campaign than she did last time. Her message has been less a conventional social conservative one and more of a kind of very online conservative populism focused on vaccine mandates, the World Economic Forum, and so on.

Again, let me ask a two-part question. One, why do you think the Lewis campaign has de-emphasized abortion and other social conservative priorities and, two, do you think that it was a mistake?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: My impression that I’ve had of Leslyn Lewis, and I don’t want to be too uncharitable about this, is that she is someone who is very much sort of, you know, her priorities are determined by the kind of people who are within her orbit at any given time. So, I think that, initially, when she first burst onto the scene, the people within her orbit, the people that made up her staff and her handlers and so forth, were all pulled from the evangelical, pro-life, professionalized movement such as it exists in Canada. And as a result, she very much reflected that agenda.

During the campaign, she caught fire in a broader way. Because I think in those days, she was seen, when she was running against Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay, she was seen as the fresh, bold, anti-establishment choice, sort of the populist choice. And it wasn’t all just about her willingness to break the abortion taboo, although I do think that that’s kind of served as a proxy for some larger things.

But I think that she caught fire as the anti-establishment, the outsider candidate in the context of a race that was seen as being between two rather bland centrist choices. And I think that in the aftermath of that, she attracted a new kind of crowd, right? She attracted new people into her orbit, who I think were more populist, more generally of the sort of anti-establishment right.

I just think that those people in general were somewhat less interested in abortion as the defining cause. They got more animated by COVID-era politics and the truckers and things of that sort. And so, I think that she is a canny enough politician to sense the direction that the wind is blowing and readapt herself towards a new audience, towards a new argument that she’s hearing, perhaps for the first time, because, let’s not forget, she’s not a very experienced politician.

As someone who’s interviewed her before, again, without being too uncharitable, she didn’t strike me as somebody that necessarily had a great deal of depth of thought about a lot of contemporary Canadian political debates, which, to me, suggests that she is a somewhat suggestible personality type and I think sort of reflects, again, a sort of savviness to understand that the true energy on the right in this country is not necessarily on the social conservative cause. It’s on the sort of broader anti-establishment, populist cause as embodied by things like the views of the World Economic Forum and anti-vaccine advocacy and that sort of thing.

But anyway, I guess the other point I would make is just that Pierre Poilievre is basically owning that field right now. So, she didn’t make an irrational assessment that this was the way to run in the year 2022. The problem just is, is that I think that Pierre Poilievre is just seen as a so-much-more authentic champion, whereas I think, and you know, she’s had a number of bumbling media interviews in which I think it is quite clear that, as, you know, once was said of Mitt Romney, she speaks this flavour of conservatism as a second language.

SEAN SPEER: J.J., we’ll come back to the question of the role and influence of social conservatives in this race. For now, I want to zoom out and talk about the race itself. One of Poilievre’s main arguments is that the idea of freedom unites the different conservative factions that even social conservatives respond to a message of freedom because they feel that government encroachment on their ability to express their religious values in the public square or raise their kids how they want or whatever is under threat.

Do you want to talk a bit about Poilievre’s campaign message of freedom? And do you think that he needs to recalibrate it all if he becomes leader or do you think that freedom is a message that has resonance beyond the Conservative Party?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Well, in response to the latter, I definitely think that, yes, this is a message that has some resonance beyond just the conservative base. I think that actually what Poilievre has been quite savvy at doing is sort of making the question of freedom a question that is relevant in a middle-class sort of material sense. You know, oftentimes, when conservatives and libertarians talk about freedom, they talk about it in this sort of very high-minded way that it becomes very abstract and very sort of philosophical.

If you’re talking about freedom in a way where it’s like: do you have the freedom to buy an affordable cell phone plan? Or is that freedom being obstructed because there are “gatekeepers,” in the sense of a telecom oligopoly that is preventing you to exercise that freedom? Do you have the freedom to buy what you want?

The issue that’s very near and dear to my heart, Bill C-11, you know, the Liberal government’s attempt to regulate YouTube. This issue, I have found to be tremendously resonant with a lot of people who are not normally very politically active, a lot of young people, in particular, because that manifestation of a freedom agenda matters to them, right? Like the idea that, do I have the freedom to watch whatever I want on YouTube or is the gatekeeper, in the sense of the CRTC, going to get in the way and say, “No, that’s not patriotic enough. You need to watch this show and that show and this amount of Canadian content,” and so forth?

Sometimes this goes in weird directions that you or I might not be as partial to. You know, do we want the freedom to buy, you know, cryptocurrency, for instance? That’s the sort of freedom argument that appeals to a certain set. Again, a set that might not ordinarily be as invested in the political scene. You, do you have the freedom, there’s also these more affirmative questions like, do you have the freedom to buy an affordable house, right? Almost the kind of, more sort of left-wing progressive framing, right? The idea that you have the freedom to have something or obtain something or the freedom to opt into a certain style of living or a certain lifestyle.

So, I think all of these ways of sort of conceptualizing freedom and making freedom applicable and practical and relevant to middle-class lives, I think that that is really something that we haven’t really sort of seen in Canadian politics before and is something that I think provides a kind of refreshing energy that I think is powering a lot of Poilievre’s movement such as it is.

SEAN SPEER: If we’re talking about overriding messages and ideas, one thing that struck me about the Charest campaign and was partly reflected in some of Tasha Kheiriddin’s comments on a recent episode of Hub Dialogues is a view about Canadian conservatism as a set of regional sensibilities, that there are, for lack of a better term, hardcore conservatives in the West, business conservative types in Central Canada, Quebec nationalists, and then Red Tories in Atlantic Canada.

I don’t know what you think. I’d be interested in your views because my sense is that that conception of conservatism may have been right at some point. But it just isn’t right today, that there are indeed big differences between conservatives and non-conservatives on issues, but conservatives themselves from coast to coast are pretty similar. And the only real difference is the number of conservatives in different regions as opposed to their worldview.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Yes,I agree with that entirely. I would also say that there’s a generational divide. And I think you brought this up in your interview with Tasha. I think that is probably, in some ways, more relevant. This idea that there’s all these different tribes and they’re all very geographic and regional and based in these historic traditions, it’s a very sort of romantic history book, undergrad “Poli Sci 101” kind of view of Canadian politics. But I do think it is quite dated in a lot of ways.

And you know, the internet has had a very flattening effect in many respects. The internet has been a tremendously democratic presence in our politics. I think it has made politics much less regional and, in some ways, much more ideological. Also just, I think, that as communication sort of expands, people just don’t necessarily think of their political priorities in a narrowly regional way. They think of it in a broader, you know, it’s not necessarily ideological or philosophical way, but then class-based way if you think of it in terms of your priorities in the phase of life that you’re in and that kind thing.

And whereas, and I do think that rather than the… is it a Red Tory thing? Is it a populist western conservative thing? I do think that, like I said before, there’s a certain generational divide where. It’s kind of remarkable actually that there is a younger generation of conservatives that I think are a little bit more inclined to the “burn-it-all-down” kind of mentality, who are more inclined to see radical change and a radical upsetting of the Canadian system’s applecart, such as it is. And then you do have some older conservatives who, I think, are a little bit more temperamentally pro-status quo in part because they’ve probably benefited from the status quo a lot more than some young people have.

So, I do think that Jean Charest is very much, I think, the candidate of that older nostalgic view of the conservatives or the Conservative Party or whatever, which I think tends to be much more anti-American, much more sort of hostile towards anything that reeks of traditional American style, right-wing ideology. And I think that is what is powering it much more than this deeply understood, deeply felt, alternative, historical philosophy of what it means to be a conservative.

So, I don’t know. As a person, I tend to be pretty resistant to arguments that just seem a little too bound up in sentimentality. And I do think that some of these arguments, these grand theories of all the different tribes of the conservative family are a little overstated in part because it seems relatively obvious to me that Pierre Poilievre is going to win this race quite easily, right? Like, he in many senses, is the establishment candidate. He is the unifying candidate. I think that we might need to retire some of these, in many cases, 20-year-old theories of how the Conservative Party works that weren’t even terribly accurate even at the time of the Conservative Party’s merger.

SEAN SPEER: What do you make of recent talk in the media about the need for the Conservative Party to shift to the center to reach so-called blue Liberals? Does that sound like a viable path to you? Isn’t a likely consequence the bleeding of support to the People’s Party, in a way that doesn’t leave the Conservative Party better off in net terms?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Yes, I think that some of the polling does suggest that, that like Poilievre is the best candidate to get the PPC voters back into the fold, so to speak, because I do think that the way he talks about freedom and just his general sort of vibe in general is much closer to that, which attracted some people to Maxime Bernier, right? He has that same sort of edge and anti-establishment and sort of like bitter hatred of Trudeau and things like lockdowns and all of that that gets the same sort of people energized and not unlike what Leslyn Lewis did as well, right?

So, these people, there can only be one champion of that lane at any given time. If it’s not Pierre, then I think it’s logical to assume it will continue to be Bernier, at least for a certain committed minority.

Now, the problem with the idea of moving to the center, I think there’s two points to that, is that it has to, I think, be articulated a little bit more specifically. And Sean, I feel like you’ve been relatively good at holding people accountable to this, right? What does that mean exactly? Is it just that Poilievre is too nasty or too mean or that his personality kind of tweaks people the wrong way? Or are there specific issues that you can point to that he’s associated with and say, “No, don’t do that”? Because in theory, and I think you’ve also mentioned this before, right? Poilievre is not the hard-right Christian candidate, right? Like he’s not running on the sort of platform that is supposedly so alienating to the kind of moderate, sensible, middle-class voters, right?

He’s running on the kind of thing that the moderate, sensible, middle-class voters always claim that they want, which is, primarily, a kind of fiscally conservative platform, not a socially conservative platform. In fact, if anything, he’s running on the most explicitly, kind of, fiscally conservative platform in a sense when you look at how much wailing he does about debt and deficits and taxes and regulation and all of this kind of stuff, right? What part about that is bad? What part about that is turning off the sort of gettable middle-of-the-road voters?

The second thing I would say though, and this is something that frustrates me quite a bit, is that a lot of the people that make these arguments, I feel, have never really grappled with O’Toole’s defeat, right? Like O’Toole was the case study of this style of Conservative, right? Like he ran on what was openly acknowledged, there was some very famous headline in The Globe and Mail, I believe, that described him as the most liberal Conservative that the party has ever put forward, right? He ran on an exceedingly moderate platform. He was an exceedingly moderate man in terms of his temperament and personality. And it didn’t work. In fact, he did worse than Andrew Scheer in terms of the share of the popular vote and the seat count.

And I just feel like this is the great unexamined sort of event in modern Canadian politics. And I think it’s just because a lot of people are just so invested in this theory, which I think was very, you know, easy to put forth during the Harper years, during the Scheer years, and then it was ultimately tested. Like you know, the dog finally caught the car and it didn’t work, and then what? Do you recalibrate your entire worldview or do you just block it out through cognitive dissonance, right?

And I feel like the latter is, unfortunately, what happened. I think that, you know, Poilievre may not win. He might not be the next prime minister, but I think it is very clear that he and his style of politics has at least earned a chance, you know? I think that’s why when you look beyond the dissident, kind of moderate conservative, older conservative establishment, whatever you want to call it, this sort of faction that’s pushing for Charest, a very small minority faction, we should always say, outside of that faction, it is very clear that Poilievre has been the unifying candidate.

I think it’s because most conservatives are willing to give it a try. They’re willing to say, “We’ve tried moderate and it didn’t work. We tried the continuity candidate,” which I think was pretty much what Scheer was and that didn’t work. “We tried, frankly, Harper a fourth time and that didn’t work either.” I think Poilievre has a bit of newness to him, a bit of freshness to him, a new approach, and an approach that is perhaps a little bit more leaning into the base’s impulses, but that is, unto itself, something that hasn’t been tried in a while.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s come back to the current state of the social conservative movement and its influence in Canadian politics. As I mentioned earlier, J.J., I’m struck that the trading-off of traditional issues for more fringe populist stuff has not only harmed its credibility, but it’s likely come at the expense of actually influencing the campaign because Poilievre, and even Charest to an extent, can match social conservatives on WEF or vaccines or whatever and ultimately not have to address issues like abortion rights.

Is this campaign, in effect, an expression of the diminished influence of social conservatives in conservative politics?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s a good question. And I guess it’s kind of, I’d say that it’s something that I’ve sort of wondered about during the course of this campaign, and sort of Pierre’s emergence as what seems to be sort of the social conservatives’ choice is to the extent to which like, is social conservatism an agenda or is it just a temperament as well? Like is being a social conservative, is this just becoming a kind of proxy for just being a populist guy in general?

And there’s been sort of a lot of conversation about this in America in particular, right? Trump has always enjoyed tremendous support from evangelical Christians, right? But the evangelical churches have become more politicized during this. So, it becomes harder to tell where one ends and one begins, you know? A lot of the evangelical churches in the U.S. are now delivering sermons that just like are just explicitly Republican talking points about how bad Biden is and how bad the Democrats are and why we should all support Trump and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.

And in America, the abortion issue, I think, is the one remaining, very clearly tangible, Christian-inspired sort of issue that is used as a litmus test for the credibility of a Republican politician. And you know, in Canada, we don’t have that. I think obviously, oh, I shouldn’t even say “obviously,” but I do think it is becoming increasingly apparent that even a lot of evangelicals in this country have kind of quietly resigned themselves to the idea that abortion is not going to be re-litigated through the Canadian political process.

You know, I think that, the debate goes on in backrooms and backchannels in this country in intellectual circles, but I think that there’s a resignation to the idea that it’s not going to be adjudicated through the conventional Canadian parliamentary process anytime soon. So, as a result, you know, that socially conservative temperament gets channeled into other forms of political activism, which I think sort of goes into what you were saying earlier, this broad freedom agenda. Just the kind of idea that the government, the state, the liberal elites, and the progressives in Ottawa, and so forth, like clearly do not like social conservatives.

Therefore, like social conservatives have a common enemy alongside libertarians and other free markets, anti-establishment conservative types of a secular sort, and that they’re all unified basically just in opposition to a common enemy. I think that’s a kind of coalition politics that, you know, is in the Conservatives’ favour.

It’s difficult though at some point because, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this as well is that coalition politics is often not pretty, right? You realize who you’re in a coalition with and who you have to apologize for and make excuses for in order to get that magic number. You know, if it’s 40 percent in Canada or whatever, who do you have to link arms with?

I think that that is the most substantial criticism that one can make of Poilievre, which is that some of his coalition-building is distasteful. He has welcomed in, I think, the more conspiratorial crank-ish set in his effort to bring in the PPC people and make them part of his coalition, right? That’s distasteful to a lot of people who regard conspiracy theorists as ignorant and even potentially dangerous people. But again, this is just on some level, how the political game is played, and that, I think, the sort of ruthlessness of Poilievre’s personality comes through in the sense that he knows what it takes to win.

And on some level, the Trump analogies are overdone, but there is a kind of Trumpy canniness in that, in the willingness to make allegiances, with who you need to make allegiances with in order to get to that finish line and, you know, maybe not be as inclined to turn the guns on your own side unless it is absolutely necessary. And I think the conservatives are not in a place where it makes sense for them to be picking fights with whoever is in their tent.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a question that’s related but separate from the Conservative Party leadership race. What, if anything, should we make of the fact that Jason Kenney will soon be out as Alberta Premier and Doug Ford has been re-elected with increased support? Can one reach any generalized conclusions about what it says about Canadian conservative politics?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: I mean, I suppose what it says on some level is that image matters a great deal, you know? Kenney, I think, by any stretch is a much more cerebral, intellectual person than Ford is. Kenney understands conservatism, understands the conservative movement. You know, I’m sure that, you know, you and him could have a great conversation about just any conservative intellectual thing under the sun and conservative history and philosophy and talk about the great movements in the ’70s and ’80s and so forth and he’d be able to keep up. No question.

I think, actually, you once said that he was sort of the only politician that we can think of in the contemporary Canadian political scene who would be able to hold his own in an American political context, right? Like that his bona fides and his sort of education, his literacy in the conservative tradition is unparalleled. Probably only Prime Minister Harper himself would be up there.

Ford is nothing of that sort. But Ford comes off as a blue-collar, aw-shucks man of the people kind of guy. He’s very unvarnished. He speaks in a blunt way. And you know, there’s a sense that he’s on your side. Whereas Kenney, despite all of his intellectual credentials or perhaps because of them, he comes off as a bit more of a stiff and awkward and somewhat elitist and even sort of condescending figure in a way that I think has turned off a lot of people.

And so, you can get into the situation where Kenney can have COVID policies that are much milder than Doug Ford’s, but they still breed a kind of resentment in the conservative base of Alberta in the way that Ford didn’t with his electorate in Ontario just because, you know, Ford has a kind of credibility of style and persona that people just appreciate more.

I mean, this is not a perfect answer, and I feel that there are some complexities to this that people like you and me that maybe want to look at the world through an overly ideological lens. Maybe miss a little bit. Because on some level, it is a little bit astonishing that Ford has been able to sort of coast through as easily as he did, you know? That he didn’t hemorrhage conservatives in any real way. That the attempts to fight him from the right went nowhere even though, as I said, his COVID policies were a lot more draconian. And he would actually go on television and brag that he had the strictest COVID policies in all of North America.

You know, you can say what you wanted with COVID policies and how extreme or how moderate they should be, but I think bragging about something like that is not textbook conservatism by any definition. And just the fact that he nevertheless was able to hold his coalition together and, in fact, even expand upon it is difficult. And you do wonder, is it all just vibes? Is it all just that he comes off as the kind of blue-collar man’s man and people want that in their politicians? I don’t know. But it’s a very good question to ask.

SEAN SPEER: Well, let me take that up. Assuming that Pierre Poilievre will indeed be the Conservative Party leader come September 10th, are there any lessons or insights to draw from the Ford government’s success in Ontario as a Poilievre-led national party prepares for an election in 2025?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: That’s a good question as well because you can imagine that Poilievre, you know– there is a bit of awkwardness to him as well. He is a slick professional politician. And maybe that will come back to haunt him in some regard if people make the argument that he is kind of a phony. That could maybe stick, you know? If the parties of the left, you know, argue that “he claims that he’s on your side, but he’s the career politician who’s made all this money, and he’s never had a real job,” or whatever, like that kind of stuff might be able to stick.

And that if Poilievre comes off as too rehearsed and too mechanical in a way that was sort of like the infamous Marco Rubio encounter in that debate that he had with Donald Trump, you know, where, you know, Rubio defaults to just saying these very tightly-scripted crowd-pleasing lines, but, you know, they no longer start to resonate after a while because they start to be seen as too repetitive and too polished.

But ultimately, you know, Pierre is who he is and Ford is who he is, and you have to be authentic to your true personality; there’s a degree to which you can’t get away from that. But I think the bigger question is, does Pierre come off as more authentic than Trudeau does?

And I think that at this point, you know, after running for three terms, after having been in power for a decade, and this is very much from Harper’s experience, there comes a point at which people are just kind of sick of you. You know, they’re tired of seeing your face. They’re tired of hearing your voice. You just become grating and exhausting. People are much less willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

And I think that in that sense, Pierre could be seen as analogous to Ford in the sense that I think that that kind of exhaustion was very much what people felt about Premier Wynne near the end of her reign. They were just done with that party. They were done with her. They were done with that whole scene. You know, Ford wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but he was fresh and, you know, seemed to have a somewhat clear vision of what he wanted to do with the government. And you know, why not give him a try?

So, I think that, you know, as much as I said earlier, Pierre is somebody that I think conservatives will be very eagerly voting affirmatively for, I do think that the swing voters ultimately, the big assumption would be that in the next election, they’ll be primarily voting against Trudeau, and that will be the case that Poilievre will have to make.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great segue to my final question. One of the common discussions about the Poilievre campaign is will some of the hard edges that resonate so much with conservative voters, will they undermine support from swing voters that the party will ultimately need across the country, but particularly in parts of the GTA, where, of course, higher levels of support are so crucial to ultimately forming government.

I have this hypothesis I’d like to put to you that Pierre’s credibility amongst conservatives may counterintuitively give him more flexibility to shift on different issues than, say, Erin O’Toole did. What do you think about that hypothesis and the prospect that we’ll see something of moderation from Pierre Poilievre in the lead-up to the next election?

J.J. McCULLOUGH: Yeah, I heard you articulate this on one of your roundtable podcasts. I thought it was a good observation, which is it’s the kind of “Nixon goes to China” thing as you said, I believe, right? Like you build up so much credibility with your base that, like you can get away with things that a more explicitly-moderate candidate couldn’t, right? And I think that Harper did this on a number of occasions, right?

I remember somebody once telling me about this with Harper, where it’s like when Harper did something that was “wrong”, quote-unquote “wrong” from a conservative perspective, when he did something that was against the ideological mission of his party, you could always have faith that he at least knew he was doing something wrong, right? Like that, deep in his core, he sensed that he was making a compromise. Whereas with a politician like O’Toole, you know, compromise was basically just all he was. That was what he existed to do, was to do and say whatever it took to just become popular.

So, I do think that, yes, you’re probably not wrong about that. I do think that, I wonder, what will be offensive about Poilievre? What will be the kind of the quote-unquote “albatross” hanging around his neck that he will have to moderate and have to back down from and have to apologize for?

That to me is somewhat unclear because, you know, traditionally, the way that that kind of dynamic has been understood in Canadian politics is that the conservative leader has to apologize or atone for his social conservatism of the past. You know, he has to apologize for the time he opposed same-sex marriage or opposed abortion or whatever. Poilievre, as far as I know, doesn’t have that track record.

And although he does have a track record of opposing vaccine mandates and lockdowns and that kind of stuff, I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to be the most front-of-mind issue. You know, hopefully, the pandemic and all of its associated stuff will be long forgotten by 2025. So, I don’t know if, necessarily, we’re still going to be expecting our politicians to re-litigate all of that and apologize for that and the positions they took on lockdowns in 2020 or whatever.

So, that being said, what will be the issues that he will be forced to compromise on in order to comfort the anxieties of skittish middle-class voters? Like, is it going to be the stuff like Bitcoin or the World Economic Forum or defunding the CBC? Like, these strike me as just incredibly marginal issues that matter a lot to the hardcore conservatives, but I think your average voter could care less one way or another.

And again, to draw the Trump analogy, I think that Trump had a lot of really loony positions on a lot of things. You know, he dabbled with all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and stuff. But he ultimately wasn’t held accountable for it when he was elected., just because when push came to shove, people just cared less about those things than they did about some of the other stuff, right?

So, I think that the gamble would be that Pierre’s promise to make life more affordable to open up consumer options and deregulate the economy and lower taxes will ultimately be the stuff that people are more animated by and will be more willing to give a bored wave of the hand to some of this other quote-unquote “crackpot” stuff that I think the Liberals might think of as being more of a liability than I think it ultimately will be.

SEAN SPEER: Well, J.J, we promised our listeners rank punditry and I think we delivered. J.J. McCullough, I want to thank you for joining us once again at Hub Dialogues.

J.J. McCULLOUGH: The pleasure was all mine.