Of all the disputes roiling Canada these days, there's one thing on which the mainstream media unanimously agree: Kevin O'Leary is appalling. He's a Trump-lite bully with no political experience and no qualifications to lead a major political party. A reality-TV star who's long on swagger and short on substance. A braggart with an iffy business record. Besides, he's basically a carpetbagger. Most of the time he lives in Boston!
Arlene Dickinson, his former sparring mate on Dragons' Den is no fan either. She says he's an opportunistic self-promoter who lacks compassion. "I don't think it [a government led by him] would help the underprivileged," she told the CBC. "I don't think it would be a country that would represent the core values that we as Canadians adhere to."
I think he's a jerk. I once went on the business show he co-hosted. I'd been asked to explain how the U.S. tax department was terrorizing little old ladies and other U.S.-born Canadians by demanding that they file U.S. tax returns, even if they hadn't lived there for 60 years. The moment I opened my mouth, he lit into me like a pit bull. He called me a naive tax-evading whiner. He didn't have a clue what he was talking about.
Mr. O'Leary is a blustering ignoramus. But he could well be the Conservatives' best hope. Voters across the Western world have developed a hankering for disruptive populists who aren't afraid to challenge the establishment and break some china to get things done. That's how he has positioned himself.
A recent Ipsos poll, conducted for Global TV, suggests that Mr. O'Leary could be Justin Trudeau's worst nightmare in 2019. "Head-to-head, it's competitive between Trudeau and O'Leary," said IPSOS CEO Darrell Bricker. "Since the election, this is the only scenario where Trudeau is challenged."
Well, it's just a poll, and 2019 is light-years away. But if I were Mr. Trudeau I'd be worried. He, more than most people, should understand the huge advantage of celebrity. Mr. O'Leary also gets three things broadly right. He's focused like a laser on economic growth and jobs. He's positive on immigration. And he's indifferent to divisive social issues, which are a bedrock of U.S identity politics.
In an age when Canadians will have to compete in a harsh new world remade by Donald Trump, Mr. O'Leary is running as a bread-and-butter centrist with no time for foolish carbon taxes. He isn't wasting his breath tearing down the other candidates. His target is Mr. Trudeau, and his message to the party is that he's the only guy who can take him down. He may well be right.
A lot could go wrong for Mr. Trudeau between now and 2019. Mr. Trump could really hurt us. The economy could go south. We could rack up whopping deficits. By 2019, you can be pretty sure that Mr. Sunny Ways will have lost some of his allure. By then, voters might cotton on to a no-holds-barred pragmatist.
In disruptive times, the old rules cease to matter. Mr. O'Leary doesn't have very many policy ideas, the pundits grump. But so what? He doesn't have to. Consistency doesn't matter either. Who cares what he may have said about this or that once upon a time? What people care about is results. As for French – well, he'll take lessons.
The leadership race has months to run, of course, and the party structure matters. To win, Mr. O'Leary will have to woo delegates from regions across the country and gain second- and third-choice as well as first-choice support. (A ranked ballot system will determine the winner.) Generations of conservatives are spinning in their graves at the prospect, and the eyeballs of eminences such as Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper are no doubt spinning their heads.
On the other hand, everybody loves a winner – especially in politics. If the choice is integrity vs. winning, politicians can be highly flexible. That's what we've learned from Donald Trump. We've learned that in disruptive times some people can break all the rules and get away with it, no matter what the media say. In fact, the more they howl, the better.
Canada isn't the United States, and Kevin O'Leary isn't Donald Trump. But could we have our own Canadian-style populist insurrection? Given the right circumstances, you betcha.