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Opinion The Trump effect: Conservatives play the waiting game

'That's not a voice we welcome in this party." That was Rona Ambrose, Conservative Party interim leader, speaking of Donald Trump 13 months ago. Like so many others, she could not, back then, imagine him becoming the Republican nominee, much less U.S. President.

Following Mr. Trump's clenched-fist inaugural address last week, there was a noticeable silence from Ms. Ambrose and Canadian Conservatives. As well there might have been. Mr. Trump cast himself as one of the most brazen protectionists the United States has ever seen. In tariff talk, it was as if it were the Smoot-Hawley days, 1930 all over again. Only this time, there was no Great Depression in the land. Only in his alternative-fact-riddled musings.

A major legacy piece of Stephen Harper was free-trade agreements. With a stroke of the pen, Mr. Trump has knocked over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Ottawa had worked hard to join. Mr. Trump, who did revive the Harper-backed Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday, is meddling with NAFTA, which was former prime minister Brian Mulroney's signature piece.

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On trade, on immigration, on Vladimir Putin, on other policies, he's far afield of our Conservatives. And along with policy, there's the persona, the crudity, the suggestions of bigotry, the antiquated attitude toward women.

But is Mr. Trump doing the Canadian Conservative brand any harm? Is there collateral damage? Not if you look at the polls.

The Conservatives have been gaining steadily on the front-running Liberals. Not if you look at the Conservative leadership race. The front-runner by a long shot is reality-TV star Kevin O'Leary, who is the closest in the race to a Donald Trump type.

A Forum Research poll released yesterday showed Mr. O'Leary more than doubling the support of other candidates. In the general population, he had 27-per-cent support compared with 11 per cent for Maxime Bernier, 7 per cent for Lisa Raitt and 6 per cent for Michael Chong. Among Conservative Party members, the gap was similar, but with Ms. Raitt in second place. In the overall party standings, the Conservatives climbed to within six points of the Liberals, who led by a 42-to-36-per-cent margin.

The poll noted the party's rank and file were falling in behind the unilingual Mr. O'Leary, who is a newcomer to the party. But, like Mr. Trump, he enjoys celebrity status and the image of an outsider to politics, one who is intent on shattering the status quo.

The notion, therefore, that Mr. Trump is not a welcome voice in the party is in some doubt. Leadership candidates have been hesitant to take him on, despite his derelictions, and despite the hundreds of thousands who showed up for the women's march on the weekend. What could weigh heavily on the leadership race is how the winging-it President fares between now and May, when the leadership vote will be held. If he's an embarrassment, Canadian Conservatives will be less likely to vote for a Trump-lite candidate.

His image might get a boost if, as so it appears, he doesn't try to apply his reactionary policy kit to this country. Trump advisers have signalled NAFTA renegotiation will not target the northern neighbour in a big way. The Liberals have wisely tapped into conservative help on this file, using Mr. Mulroney and former Washington ambassador Derek Burney to open doors in Washington.

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It's not to say the America firsters cannot heavily disrupt the Liberal agenda. Taking the opposite approach on carbon taxation, to take just one example, will hardly help Canada's competitive position.

There is also the other possibility, one the Liberals and Conservatives need to bear in mind, one in which Mr. Trump overturns all expectations and emerges successful. He inherits, despite his nutty talk of carnage, an improving economy. Even his protectionism might not be able to reverse it, at least not in the short term. On the foreign front, he is intent on warm relations with the Russians. There is the possibility that, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he could work out a deal with them that works to diminish international tensions.

While such a scenario is unlikely – more likely is tumult and trade wars – it is a possibility both political parties have to prepare for.

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