Without a Praetorian Guard of world-wise volunteers and an attractive personal epiphany around age 30, a conservative leadership aspirant is not expected to be smart enough to escape IOUs to crazies, or disciplined enough to use those important briefing books that drive modern government. These presumptions make sentient politicians uncomfortable.
The last leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, for instance, made heroic efforts to get specific about Ontario’s ugliest policy problems, seeing no public virtue in ignorance. Did Tim Hudak try too hard, was he too specific, too far to the right, and/or heed the wrong economists?
These questions, along with a pervasive suspicion that post–William Davis Progressive Conservatives don’t feel at home south of Bloor Street or in the precious heart of Georgian Bay cottage country, will haunt what we read and hear about the closing days of their leadership race. After all, they pop up in the nervous asides and clammy dreams of the finalists and their advisors — all except for one Patrick Brown, the candidate whose hustle has put him conspicuously in front.
Excellent Queen’s Park columnist for the Toronto Star Martin Regg Cohn sees that Brown is different and isn’t comfortable.
After spending 90 minutes alone with this bilingual professional politician, Cohn writes that he left without a clue about the specifics driving Brown and his mysterious juggernaut. Harmless false modesty. The faithful Star reader happily assumes that insurgent Progressive Conservatives with names like Patrick Brown will be inarticulate or be hiding vicious secrets.
Patrick Brown may be seven years younger than Justin Trudeau, but no one’s ever likely to call him Peter Pan.
I got my 90 minutes with Brown simply watching the February 11th Ottawa Leadership, held a week or so before it was reported that he’d sold more $10 memberships than his two remaining opponents, combined.
My instant impression was mixed. He’s burdened by — or blessed by — not being a handsome 36-year-old, six-foot-tall bachelor. With short, windswept, wispy hair, a weathered face, and a long nose, cartoonists will have a blond raven to play with. His sentences and his smiles are brief but intelligent; it's fitting he's not slavishly connected to the task of being likeable.
Cohen is professionally demanding of politicians, but people who turn out at public meetings in Ottawa this winter are demanding as well. They asked questions about what’s gone wrong in the party and in Ontario and what they should to do about it. Brown doesn’t stand out when ‘"reading" words, even words he may have written himself. However, informally answering questions, and in attack, he’s impressive: concrete, unqualified, and even-tempered.
Brown asserts quietly and coldly that they must “fix” the party, that he “knows how to do this,” that he’ll sell 100,000 memberships and that those members will “dictate” the next election platform. Anecdotally, he demonstrates that while selling 40,000 memberships, he’s discovered “thoughtful” new policy ideas. All in all, he’s an insurgent without any sense of being on the outside.
He's tying himself to a dormant truth about our relatively conservative, affluent society: mobilizing 100,000 adults across Ontario will make you stronger and more careful.
He may never match Premier Wynne’s encyclopedic confidence in all she’s doing for us. He may not yet be tough or funny enough to handle the deceitful intimacy of Queen’s Park. But certainly in debate, his tongue will not be tied by past party embarrassments.
*With apology to Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, a film about the dreadful prospect of failing once too often.