The death on Saturday of United States Senator John McCain removed a unique player from the political stage.
War hero, patriot, presidential candidate (in 2008), and for 35 years the “lion of the Senate,” McCain embodied qualities of independence and courage that are prized, but are rarely found among politicians, in Canada as in the United States.
Principles mattered more to him than popularity He was not always right, but he defended his principles resolutely, even when attacked by his own leadership – as happened last year when he cast the decisive Senate vote to save the Affordable Care Act. In the gutless Republican congressional delegation, McCain was the one senior figure who was unafraid to stand against President Donald Trump.
I found myself reflecting on McCain as the speeches and debates rolled on at the Conservative Party’s national convention in Halifax on the weekend. Has there ever been an opposition party more in need of strong, principled leadership? A party more in need of the courage to ignore polls and focus groups long enough to offer a platform that actually addresses the nation’s real problems?
In Andrew Scheer, the Conservatives have a leader who has not yet been able to define who he is or what he stands for, other than winning the next election. He went into the convention appearing, as he is sometimes described, like a grey figure on a grey background. He emerged looking much the same.
The delegates provided no clarity, as they avoided tough issues for fear of alienating one segment or other of the electorate.
Climate change is perhaps the gravest issue facing the world today and one that cries out for a sustained global response.
But the Conservatives were not having any of that global threat malarkey. They came out against the Liberal government’s national carbon plan and any form of national carbon tax. Instead, they agreed that climate change is not a global or even a national concern. It’s a provincial issue and should be left to the provinces; Ottawa should butt out.
Seriously? Leave global warming to the likes of Doug Ford? Will the Ontario premier have time to deal with world-wide climate change when he is so busy getting sex ed out of Ontario schools, setting up teacher snitch lines, freezing the minimum wage, and getting one-buck beer on the market?
Immigration and the handling of refugees have the potential to be a major issue in the federal election in October next year, especially if former Conservative Maxime Bernier manages to get an anti-immigrant libertarian party off the ground. So the Conservatives kept their eyes to the right at the weekend, choosing not to address such troublesome principles as human rights and the persecution of minorities in refugees’ home countries. Instead, they voted to make it illegal for refugees to attempt to enter Canada anywhere along the border with the United States.
On abortion, the delegates voted, narrowly, not to reopen that divisive debate. But they left the door ajar by endorsing a Trump-like policy that Canadian foreign aid money not be used to support abortion in maternal and child-care programs abroad.
Although the policy resolutions are not binding on the leader or caucus, Halifax revealed the strength of social conservatism among party members.
Scheer now has to define himself. He needs to decide whether to shift to the right to accommodate his base – and fend off “Mad Max” Bernier – or to seek the centre where most swing voters live. He can’t have it both ways.
In Washington, the opposition Democrats have deeper problems. They have no policy with no leader in sight. They want to get Trump out of the White House, but they waffle, fearing to raise a hand against him lest they alienate all those Americans who don’t like him, but vote for him anyway.
The Democrats need a leader with the conviction and courage of a John McCain. Canada’s Tories could use one of those, too.