Amid all the media hoopla surrounding this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, here’s a headline you probably missed: Stephen Harper was invited to speak but politely declined. Speaking to the National Post, an anonymous staffer later explained that the optics of Harper addressing a gang of Republicans would be just too scandalous for his delicate country to handle.
“Our whole careers, we’ve had to defend ourselves against charges of being lackeys of the American right,” he said. So why give the haters more ammo?
One really has to feel for the CPAC organizers. We all know the Republican Party isn’t exactly on the ascendancy these days, but what does it say about a group so desperate for American conservative success stories that they have to leave America altogether? Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was apparently another gentle rejection, though I imagine he was worried about optics of a different sort.
Not that the Harper invite was entirely without merit, mind you. From the perspective of an American righty, the PM offers no shortage of reasons for respect. He’s a strong intellectual conservative. He’s won three back-to-back terms in a centre-left nation. He seems poised to balance the Canadian budget in less than a decade without resorting to tax hikes. He’s been called the most pro-Israel leader on earth. He’s pretty good at winning the nonwhite/immigrant vote. In many ways, he’s everything Republicans want to be, but can’t.
More controversially, however, the Harper precedent also offers evidence supporting the moderate-or-die school of conservative electoral strategy. Take cherished right-wing social issues. Here, Harper runs the gamut from disinterested to agnostic.
Though a staunch critic of gay marriage while still in the political wilderness, as prime minister he inherited a country that had already legalized it, and in 2006, after a hopeless parliamentary vote on revisiting the matter, he officially declared the debate “closed.” That’s different than full-throated support, but practically speaking… not really.
On abortion, the story’s much the same. My friend Jonathan Van Maren, spokesman for one of this country’s more radical pro-life groups, recently wrote an bitter editorial in which he describes Harper as a cruelly indifferent politician who’s consistently failed to offer anti-abortionists “the slightest reason to support him.”
“I will not have legislation limiting a woman’s right to choose,” Jon quotes the prime minister stating repeatedly. Again, perhaps different from saying “I’m ecstatic about said right,” but even more different from threatening it.
Canadians partial to this sort of conservative pragmatism have done their best to hype their “good example” to audiences south of the border. Following President Obama’s reelection, the Canadian papers filled with editorials lecturing Republicans to heed the Harper case study, or else get used to feeling the Democrat boot on their backsides. David Frum in particular, the dual-citizen booster of binational conservatism/exiled Republican thought criminal has constantly written editorials praising Harper as a vindicating counterexample to Tea Party extremism.
And there’s evidence powerful voices in the Republican establishment are beginning to take Harperism to heart, too. As last week’s so-called 2012 “autopsy report” from GOP Chairman Reince Priebus vividly illustrated, the Republican Party’s highest-ranking muckity-mucks are painfully aware their contemporary troubles are almost entirely rooted in damning perceptions of party dogmatism, bigotry, and intolerance among the general public. We need to get away from “universal purity” and towards “a more welcoming conservatism,” says the report. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.” We must become “inclusive and welcoming on social issues.” And so on.
Now, I like Stephen Harper. I’ve voted for him repeatedly. I think he’s a better prime minister than any available alternative. But I’m also prepared to admit his success as an “electable conservative” are a product of the unique weirdness of the Canadian political system as much as anything else. His ability to provide lessons to the rest of the world have to be viewed first and foremost in this context.
In the last Canadian parliamentary election Harper’s party won 39.6% of the popular vote. That’s not a lot. Granted, every other party won considerably less, and it doesn’t logically follow — as much as the Stephane Dions and Elizabeth Mays of the world might wish — that some hybrid Frankenstein Liberal-NDP-Green coalition government would be more democratically legitimate. But the Conservative Party of Canada, even in this current epoch of outreach, still only commands only a narrow plurality of public support, and it’s a plurality smaller than the one John McCain won in 2008, or even Michael Dukakis in 1988.
But that’s good enough in a parliamentary system. In many ways, Harper’s success in Canada is really more analogous to John Boehner’s ability to remain speaker of the House of Representatives even though more overall voters wanted Nancy Pelosi. A party that’s unpopular nationally can still win legislative majorities without too much difficulty because the diverse voter, party, and issue dynamics in several hundred individual races offer vastly more strategic potential (particularly when gerrymandering is involved) than the unified judgement of the national populace.
Second, it’s not clear at all whether Stephen Harper’s calculated moderation has actually improved the party’s brand in any measurable way — or at least changed any minds. Ask your average young, urbanite Canadian (a demographic that overwhelmingly supports the NDP) why she doesn’t vote Tory, and her reasons will probably echo the non-Republicans in the Priebus report: the party is too white and religious, it hates gay people, it’s full of radical anti-abortion nuts, and so on. The Canadian left certainly hasn’t moderated their rhetoric in response to their increasingly pragmatic opponents, as last year’s completely insane liberal freak-out over a non-existent Harper conspiracy against gay marriage proved, a stereotype merely has to sound plausible to be politically powerful. How much time would have to pass before accusations of Republican bigotry — no matter how moderate the candidate — stop sounding plausible? How many election cycles did it take for southern conservatives to stop voting Democrat?
Lastly, demographics. I’ll expand on this one in more detail once I finally get around to writing a proper review of The Big Shift, an important and insightful book on the influence of immigration on modern Canadian politics, but for now, suffice it to say that Canadian minority voters (who more-or-less back conservatives) and American minority voters (who don’t) don’t actually have much in common beyond an off-white skin tone.
For reasons particular to its history and geography, the United States possesses an enormous population of men and women of African and Latino descent, many of whom inhabit a depressingly stable underclass marked by poverty, discrimination, and social dysfunction. Canada’s largest minority population, in contrast, consists of east and south Asians who voluntarily journeyed to North America after the Second World War and established comfortable middle-class lifestyles in ethnic suburban enclaves.
If American minorities are disproportionately disposed to the left, in short, it’s not because of some fundamental “minority” distrust of white conservatives (though that may surely exist) but rather their logical economic disposition to favor the party of welfare, medicare, and social assistance, while Canada’s comparably better-off minorities favor the Tories because there’s a sense that it’s the party of small business and general bourgeois sensibilities.
This is a crass overgeneralization, I realize, and its blunt simplicity does not explain some of the stranger divergences in North American voter demographics (why bourgeois Asian-Americans vote Democrat for example). But it’s still truer than not. A good Canadian thought exercise is to imagine a scenario in which aboriginals comprised 25% of the Canadian electorate. Would a Tory appeal to “shared conservative values” get them anywhere?
There’s an unavoidable possibility that conservatism, in the sense it’s presently understood and offered in North America, is simply not a winning pitch on either side of the 49th parallel. It can win a majority of seats in the Canadian legislature and a majority of members in the United States Congress, but it can’t command an outright majority of popular support in either nation. That matters less in Canada, where three-party races and a badly-designed parliamentary system allow a government to seize sweeping power on a relatively thin mandate, but it also says less about the viability of Canadian conservatism than Harper-boosters want to believe.
That’s the awkward hidden subtext to Harper’s no-show at CPAC: he doesn’t have much to teach.