Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Kellie Leitch announced last week she is retiring from politics. Leitch, a pediatric surgeon, was recruited as a star Conservative candidate in the 2011 federal election, but her star fell after she ran for the party leadership in 2017 on a platform advocating for screening potential immigrants for un-Canadian values. She ultimately finished in sixth place.
Leitch’s retirement was no doubt motivated in part by two strong challengers who have threatened to steal the Conservative nomination in the riding of Simcoe-Grey from her, even before the next election campaign has begun.
Some have groused that these challengers are part of a plot co-ordinated by party officials to jettison incumbent MPs they view as electoral liabilities. While that’s possible, it’s more likely that her two challengers, including a local mayor, sensed that Leitch was vulnerable following her leadership run and her subsequent exclusion from the Tory shadow cabinet. I also suspect Leitch herself did not excel in the task of maintaining connections with her constituents between elections.
To her credit, Leitch never blamed the challenges on a plot, instead simply noting "Our party has an open nomination process and I agree with it... It’s part of a healthy process and evidence of a strong party."
The centrepiece of Leitch’s campaign last year for the Tory leadership was a values test for potential immigrants. Leitch’s proposals found strong support among some Canadians — especially Conservative supporters — but were highly polarizing.
Often, it seemed as though Leitch’s critics were less concerned about her actual ideas than they were with what those ideas represented: an electoral bulwark for Trumpism. Leitch did little to discourage this perception, even sending out an enthusiastic tweet congratulating U.S. President Donald Trump on his win in 2016. Trump’s win, Leitch argued, represented an "exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well."
Yet, when the results rolled in, Leitch finished in sixth place, far behind leadership-race-winner Andrew Scheer.
In part, this was because Leitch lacked some of the fundamental skills we often take for granted in politicians. She was a poor, wooden communicator and was widely mocked after releasing an amateurish campaign advertisement that could have been mistaken for a This Hour Has 22 Minutes skit (and it later was lampooned by one).
More fundamentally, Leitch failed in the leadership race because it’s doubtful she herself believed in the policies she was advocating. Widely regarded as a centrist "Red Tory" prior to the race, Leitch broke down in tears when discussing her role in announcing the 2015 Conservative promise to create a tip line Canadians could call to report "barbaric cultural practices," which was widely seen as a thinly veiled attack on Muslims.
Despite this, Leitch was persuaded by adviser Nick Kouvalis to emphasize a values test for immigrants, after he concluded polling had found a potential path to victory for her.
We often think pollsters and marketers craft politicians from whole cloth. Not so. Politicians come to their jobs with pre-existing experiences, ideas and concerns. The trick is to take those pre-existing ideas and transform them into themes that can sustain and animate the politician when she sets out to gain public support.
As the political scientist Richard Fenno put it, politicians must find themes that work for voters. But they also have to find themes that work for them.
With this in mind, Leitch falls into a familiar category of inauthentic politicians. Saddled with a platform she herself hardly seemed to believe in, she often appeared uncomfortable and awkward defending it. An obviously intelligent person, Leitch nonetheless struggled to explain aspects of her proposals, and so resorted to the use of catchphrases and slogans. She stumped for her proposals with all the passion and conviction of an IT guy instructing someone to turn his computer off and on again.
In the end, having failed to convince herself, she could hardly convince others.
There is a lesson for aspiring politicians in Leitch’s failed public career, and it is not just that inflammatory issues have a way of exploding in one’s own hands. The current emphasis on charisma notwithstanding, politicians must believe in something other than their own success in order to convince others to support them. Politicians can compromise and bend their core beliefs into pretzels, but they cannot run in direct opposition to what they believe without giving up enormous advantage to their opponents.
Leitch is undoubtedly leaving politics under a cloud. We are far too willing to either lionize or demonize our politicians, rather than accepting them simply as human beings, warts and all. As a pediatric surgeon, Leitch experienced great success and did an enormous amount of good for others in her pre-political career. The opposite, however, was true of her time in politics. It’s probably best for both her and us that she’s retiring from public life.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.