Businessman’s exit from the Conservative leadership race was as perplexing as his entry. We may never know his true motivations.
Conservative Party leadership candidate Maxime Bernier (left) and Kevin O’Leary at a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday after it was announced that O’Leary had quit the leadership race and thrown his support behind Bernier. (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Kevin O’Leary would argue that his putative leadership campaign was a positive force for the Conservative party. It is true that he brought excitement, profile and high drama to a moribund race, not to mention 35,000 new members.
On the other hand, he equally brought negative publicity, little policy and campaign confusion to an already cluttered field of candidates. Similar in style to Donald Trump, O’Leary’s persona took precedence over campaign logistics and organization.
His speeding train for the leadership screeched to a noisy halt on Wednesday. Seemingly unable to find the route to victory, the neophyte politician, suddenly decided to step right off the track as a candidate — but not as a power broker. With his endorsement of Maxime Bernier, the Quebec MP who now appears to be the front-runner, O’Leary hopes to take up a new role as the kingmaker during the final weeks of voting.
But will O’Leary hinder, or help, Bernier?
At least three issues linger in the wake of O’Leary’s announcement.
These questions are asked because the serious nature of his “run for the roses” remains in doubt. O’Leary said his mission was to defeat Justin Trudeau. So, why did he avoid debates with his fellow contenders? If he couldn’t defeat his colleagues, how could he possibly defeat the Prime Minister?
Furthermore, his lack of knowledge regarding Canadian politics was glaringly apparent with his statement that, gosh, only now did he realize that he couldn’t win the leadership without growing his strength in Quebec. How was he unaware of this reality, given that he was born in Montreal?
Thirdly, leadership contests are not only data driven, but people driven. This type of race is designed to renew and hopefully unify a party, in spite of intense, internal competition. How will the O’Leary supporters react, especially if they are new members? It can be a very discouraging feeling to support someone, only to watch that candidate walk away. Supporters may feel betrayed, angry, cynical or apathetic — emotions the Conservatives had no doubt hoped to avoid.
Running for the leadership of one of our federal parties is not a task to be lightly undertaken. Charisma or profile will only take you so far. A strong stamina and a clear vision are key, usually honed through years of electoral experience. Donald Trump is the outlier in this regard, but judging from his first chaotic 100 days, it may be that Americans decide never to try the “outsider” experiment again.
Perhaps O’Leary found he didn’t enjoy the process. Perhaps he realized that few voters would cast him as their second choice. Or perhaps he just lost his nerve.
Every candidate has feelings of self-doubt and worry. Even Hillary Clinton wavered about her own decision. Shattered, the new book on the inner workings of her campaign, notes “she had been dragging her feet about making things official.”
In her case, it wasn’t a lack of policy interest or knowledge, which were issues for O’Leary, but rather a feeling that since she had been out of the political loop as secretary of state, she would need to find her political chops again. She had also “told friends and advisers that she was reluctant about jumping in at all.” But in the end, she apparently persuaded herself that no one else could win and so she went forward.
In O’Leary’s case, for whatever reason, he has persuaded himself that he couldn’t win, either the leadership or the country in a general election. We likely won’t ever know the real story, until someone, probably O’Leary, writes a book.
Meanwhile, Maxime Bernier is now charged with carrying O’Leary’s baggage. On May 27, we will know if that baggage is a blessing or a burden.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.