When Andrew Scheer won the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in the spring, the implicit promise was continuity.
He might be younger, more affable, a better retail politician than Stephen Harper. But, unlike leadership rivals who had promised hard-core libertarianism or something closer to Red Toryism, he would essentially maintain Mr. Harper's version of the party – one that combines incremental fiscal conservatism with a populism that plays to the Conservative base outside urban cores.
This week, Mr. Scheer showed that the Tories are getting exactly what they bargained for – and that anyone who hoped this smiling new face would reorient his party away from articles of faith they found too dogmatic or closed-minded are likely in for disappointment.
If he were looking for attention-grabbing opportunities to set himself apart from his predecessor, he could have found them in two of the most controversial federal matters to flare up recently: the financial settlement Justin Trudeau's government provided to Omar Khadr, and the prospect of free-trade negotiations with China.
Instead, Mr. Scheer has opted to re-embrace Harper-era positions that – little as they otherwise have in common – both pit the Conservatives against what they see as media or academic or Ottawa-bubble consensuses detached from common-sense perceptions in the real world.
Of the two double-downs, the one on Mr. Khadr was more inevitable, if also harder to defend on its merits.
Throughout Mr. Harper's time in office, a complete lack of sympathy toward the Canadian kid locked up at Guantanamo Bay was a point of pride for Conservatives, to the extent that some of them still boast about their roles in delaying his repatriation. Let the elites point out that he was a 15-year-old, by most definitions a child soldier, at the time of his capture fighting for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; that his confession to killing a U.S. special forces medic was likely coerced, and he never received a fair trial; that rather than defending his rights as a citizen, Canadian officials (under the previous Liberal government) were complicit in abusive U.S. interrogations. To the Tories, he was nothing more than an unrepentant terrorist and murderer, and that proved their connection to all the real Canadians who viewed Mr. Khadr through similarly clear eyes.
So entrenched is that perspective in the Conservative psyche that Mr. Scheer scarcely had time to open his mouth after reports that Mr. Khadr was receiving $10.5-million in public funds for his mistreatment before members of his caucus were tripping over each other to denounce it. Little more than a month into his leadership, it would have required immense intestinal fortitude for Mr. Scheer to explain to his MPs that they really should accept the settlement, since it ended a (potentially even more lucrative) lawsuit Mr. Khadr was very likely to win.
But there is no indication Mr. Scheer had any wish to moderate his party's position. On the contrary, he attacked Mr. Trudeau with gusto for a "disgusting" deal that "is a slap in the face to men and women who face incredible danger every day to keep us safe."
Give an inch on this issue, Conservative leaders evidently still believe, and you pass up an opportunity to speak viscerally to voters in a way rarely possible.
Trade with China is somewhat more complicated, both in terms of the party's dynamics and in how Mr. Scheer is approaching it.
The Conservatives are certainly not as negative toward China as during the early years of Mr. Harper's government. But while Mr. Harper eventually shifted somewhat from publicly campaigning against China's human-rights record to engaging it economically, his legacy is still a Sino-skepticism that stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Trudeau's charm offensive.
Unlike on the Khadr file, lots of prominent Conservatives – including leadership runner-up Maxime Bernier – think that attitude is outdated. But Mr. Scheer has gone out of his way to signal that he is not among them. After his swift rebuke of the Trudeau government's free-trade aspirations earned him a public attack from Beijing, he followed up with an op-ed in The Globe and Mail this week expressing his opposition all the more emphatically.
Some of the arguments Mr. Scheer has invoked while making the case are ones that Mr. Harper might not have. While accusing the Liberals of "appeasement" for approving the sale of a technology company to Chinese interests despite security concerns, he has also cited Chinese disregard for Canadian labour standards and warned of job losses – seemingly exploring the sort of messaging that has helped U.S. conservatives appeal to blue-collar voters who traditionally leaned left.
But what remains constant is that the Conservatives are happily thumbing their noses at professors, business leaders or bureaucrats who think refusing to build bridges with China constitutes a sort of denialism about the obvious economic direction of the world. Where Mr. Scheer could have tried to prove he has a more modern outlook on foreign policy than his predecessor, he is instead circling back to Mr. Harper's early framing of solicitousness toward China as weakness.
Mr. Scheer will yet have plenty more chances to set himself apart from the only other person to have led his party into an election, and he may well seize them.
But combine how he has responded to the hottest buttons since he won the job with the positions most prominent to his leadership campaign – opposition to carbon pricing, a policy that would withdraw funding from university campuses that do not meet his standards for protecting free speech – and you get the sense any differentiation will not come from disavowing the sort of policies that play first and foremost to the base Mr. Harper built.