I actually think Maxime Bernier being in the debates is a benefit to Andrew Scheer.
Conventional wisdom says that Bernier would steal focus away from Scheer, showing the more right-wing Tories the kind of charismatic, red-meat-throwing leader they wish they had, rather than the milquetoast Scheer.
I get that argument: Scheer is an entirely forgettable character, with little accomplishments other than a short tenure as Speaker (we do not speak enough about how odd it is for a Speaker to go on to serve as a party leader; even Tories can only point to one guy, who did this back during the Napoleonic Wars).
Bernier, for all his heinousness, is a more memorable character. You might need that charm and larger-than-life personae to meet Justin Trudeau head on.
But with Trudeau damaged by the black- and brown-face scandal, Scheer might have an opening.
Here’s my theory:
Scheer has held Bernier back from eating into his base, but he needs to gain some Blue Liberals to win power. As the dynamic trio of David Herle, Scott Reid and Jenni Byrne have said on The Herle Burly podcast, Scheer needs to win a majority to win, given the dynamics conspiring against him leading a minority government.
That means, at it’s most basic, that Scheer needs to hold his Conservative base and win back disaffected Liberal-Conservative switch voters: Blue Liberals or Red Tories who were sick of Harper and swung to Trudeau in 2015.
Scheer can do that at Bernier’s expense. Scheer will no doubt have the opportunity for a “debate moment” à la Brian Mulroney’s “you had an option, sir” knockout punch in 1984 (ironically, given that Scheer is something of a Joe Clark to Bernier’s Mulroney, at least superficially).
By using Bernier as a foil, Scheer can show that he is moderate and sensitive to suburban immigrant communities in the Greater Toronto Area and the Vancouver suburbs.
The fact is, Scheer has done a good job defending his right flank against Bernier, and so long as he can keep doing that, and show he is competitive enough to come close to replacing Trudeau, he still needs to appeal to the centre.
He can do that by putting Bernier in his place.
In the same way, I have been arguing that notwithstanding his opposition to the carbon tax, Scheer needs to show moderate voters that he takes concerns regarding the climate crisis seriously. His climate-change policy does not go far enough, but even having one and showing that he will not be a troglodyte on the environment is a good baseline to appeal to, in particular, suburban mums who worry about their pocketbooks but also worry about the climate.
Bernier’s inclusion in the debates makes for an unpredictable element, but Scheer can jitsu that unpredictability by picking a moment to use Bernier to his advantage, to show moderate voters that Scheer is electable, he is palatable and that he gets their values.
Given the recent controversy, Trudeau will also be in a tenuous place to punch back on Scheer on such issues, to say the least.
It’s a simple equation: Scheer needs centrist, suburban voters to win, and he can show those voters that he shares their values by punching at Bernier.
More than just the values question, Scheer suffers from a general sense, in my opinion, of wishy-washy-ness. He comes off as weak, or, to borrow a Britishism, Scheer “lacks bottom”: he’s soft, a man of few accomplishments and no gravitas.
Trudeau, when he faced a perception of being too soft for the job, did two things: he beat a bigger guy in a boxing match and he held his own against Stephen Harper in debates.
Scheer can do the same, and he can do it by using Bernier’s participation in the debates to his advantage.
Photo Credit: Toronto Star
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