For most of his time as Leader of Alberta's Wildrose Party, Brian Jean has been a benign force, doing little to convince disgruntled conservatives in the province that he is the person around whom to rally and place their trust.
Behind the reluctance to embrace his leadership has been a nagging doubt about his judgment and political acumen. He has been the target of a perpetual whisper campaign propagated by people in his own party who insist he'll be replaced before the next election. That he has not been able to snuff this talk out speaks to his vulnerabilities. This week, Mr. Jean gave his enemies within (and elsewhere) potentially lethal ammunition with which to use against him.
Mr. Jean was in his home riding of Fort McMurray on Tuesday evening, giving what had been mostly a standard-fare talk on seniors care. He was trying to position himself, as politicians do, as the champion of the ignored and underserved. "I've been beating this drum for 10, 11 years," he told the crowd. "I will continue to beat it, I promise." At which point he decided to inject his own unusual brand of levity into the conversation.
"But it's against the law to beat Rachel Notley," he guffawed.
Far from drawing gasps, the audience roared with laughter and applause, according to journalists present. It didn't take long, however, for Mr. Jean, or an aide, to realize how far beyond tone deaf and idiotic he had wandered. He returned to the stage and told his supporters he shouldn't have said what he did about "that woman" and suggested Ms. Notley deserved a round of applause instead before adding: "And that was tough to say."
There have been more gracious mea culpas.
What is not tough to say today is just how damaging a blunder this represents for the Wildrose Leader. Yes, he deserves credit for recognizing how blindingly senseless his comment was and retracting it immediately.
But then, he had no choice. Ignoring or attempting to explain away his callousness as a dumb joke gone awry would have been politically perilous. It still may be.
Mr. Jean was joking about "beating" someone who has been the recipient of some of the most misogynistic and threatening actions a female politician in this country has ever faced.
This includes online death threats that Mr. Jean himself once denounced. A large image of Premier Notley's face was once used as a target on a golf course; it was eventually demolished by a man who ran over it in his electric cart. Someone else posted a tweet that showed the Alberta Premier in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
Late last year, the Alberta legislature was brought to stunned silence as NDP MLA Maria Fitzpatrick recounted how her late husband beat, raped and tortured her for years before she could escape, with her children, from her daily terror. She was speaking in support of a private members' bill on domestic violence that members of Mr. Jean's party supported.
It is against this backdrop that Mr. Jean will be judged.
Efforts to diminish the reaction to his comment as another example of political correctness run amok are hopeless. Mr. Jean leads a party that once lost an election because of the discovery of a years-old homophobic blog posting by one of its candidates.
This country is haunted by the ghosts of politicians whose careers were reduced to smouldering ruins because of one vacuous misstep. A politician's demise often depends on what the public determines a gaffe says about his inherent character. Can they ultimately be trusted or not?
Mr. Jean's problems are now twofold.
Not only does he need to repair the extensive and needless damage he has caused his party among the broader electorate (and female voters in particular) but he must also attend to the fresh dissent his stupidity has undoubtedly unleashed within Wildrose itself.
In this regard, Brian Jean did the last thing he wanted to: give those lacking faith in his leadership irrefutable evidence that he will never be the one to lead the party to the promised land.
In trying to be funny at Rachel Notley's expense, Brian Jean may have provided his enemies with the last laugh.