It hasn't been a good week for the federal Conservatives. Where have you heard that before?
The Tories held their second leadership debate in Moncton on Tuesday. Since the last gathering, the field of candidates grew even larger. There were 14 on stage in New Brunswick, speaking bad French, making bad jokes, highlighting bad behaviour. It's never good for a party's image when terms like "race-baiting"and "anti-immigration" are being hurled around on stage.
But the most egregious conduct among those aspiring to lead the Conservatives and the country one day – was on display well before the debate even took place. Former federal cabinet minister and leadership candidate Chris Alexander was at an anti-carbon tax rally in Edmonton on the weekend when the crowd started chanting "Lock her up" – in reference to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Of course, it was the same chant popularized at campaign rallies held by president-elect Donald Trump and aimed at Hillary Clinton.
As the crowd in Edmonton roared the disgraceful slogan, Mr. Alexander stood on stage where he was giving a short address and smiled, his one hand rhythmically keeping pace with the words. At no point did he attempt to admonish the crowd for suggesting a democratically-elected politician be thrown in jail over her policies.
Of course, once video of the scene emerged this week and criticism of Mr. Alexander's behaviour began to mount, he was suddenly horrified by what he had witnessed. He couldn't disassociate himself from the moment fast enough. And yet, he maintained that it wasn't "his job" to chastise the crowd over its spontaneous outburst. "Their anger is real," he said.
The anger of any mob is real. That is self-evident. Still, you don't just sit back and do nothing in the face of one. In this instance, Mr. Alexander had an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership, real backbone. He had a chance to tell the crowd that what they were saying wasn't right, that we don't encourage or foster such things in this country. He could have raised his hand, stifled the alarming rhetoric, and told the protesters that while he understood their ire, in this country you dispatch politicians you don't like by voting them out of power – not with torches and pitchforks.
Instead he stood silent, a mute accomplice in search of campaign support.
Mr. Alexander may have been a fine diplomat at one time but he's proven to be a dreadful politician. His best instincts fail him repeatedly, as they did during the Syrian crisis of 2015 when, as immigration minister, he displayed little empathy for the plight of refugees and later during the "barbaric cultural practices" debacle in which he played a prominent role. He should go back to what he is good at.
Brad Trost is someone else whose political reflexes seem horribly off. Like Mr. Alexander, he's also running for the leadership of the Conservatives. Earlier this week, the Saskatchewan MP tweeted his support for the Edmonton demonstrators. He said he was sorry he couldn't be at the rally, but had he been able to, he would have joined in the "Lock her up" chant. He later justified this remark by suggesting the crowd didn't actually mean what it said, but was simply voicing its displeasure with Ms. Notley's policies, like that "uncle" everyone has who "speaks like that at the breakfast table." He even called on interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to apologize for characterizing the braying throng as "idiots."
Mr. Trost's behaviour is even worse than Mr. Alexander's. He would appear to be only interested in appealing to our worst impulses as a people. If the Conservatives were smart, they would be encouraging him to drop out of the race now because his continued presence in it will be a harmful distraction. Any political party worth its salt would want nothing to do with the man.
The short, post-Harper era we have lived through has not been great for the Conservatives. They seem lost and, in some cases, vulnerable to the ravings of a narrow, bigoted fringe disguising itself as disenfranchised Canadians. What the Tories' leadership race seems to demonstrate more each day is that the person best equipped to next lead the party into battle is already in charge.
Ms. Ambrose is prohibited by party constitution from seeking the leadership because she assumed the interim party leader role. There should be a grassroots movement demanding the Conservatives change the rules. Because beyond the veteran Alberta MP, the party's leadership pickings are pretty slim.