Who could have predicted it?
Remember two years ago when the liberal Obama tides were sweeping the U.S.? Many of us thought there would be a wash-over effect into Canada, an infusion of liberal idealism of the type of a John F. Kennedy or a Franklin Roosevelt. Barack Obama would stir the Canadian political imagination. Younger generations would be politically awakened. Old conservatism would fade into Bushian disrepute.
To the surprise and disillusionment of northern liberals, there has been no such reverberation. Remarkably enough, something closer to the opposite is in play. Mr. Obama appears to be helping Canadian conservatives. Some of the populist anger he has stirred south of the border is channelling north. The success of Toronto mayoralty candidate Rob Ford is an example, as is the furor over the HST in British Columbia. The tenor of the Harper Conservatives' pitch on the gun registry, on law and order, on census-taking, on science is in keeping.
It's a play to bumper-sticker populism, to an anti-intellectual spirit that crashes against the Obama promise of enlightened governance, civility, global perspective. A few months ago, Ekos pollster Frank Graves was talking about a culture war. Given the ugly nature of the political polarization here, who can doubt it? It's a smaller version of America's. But it shows signs of growth.
The arrival of Mr. Obama was supposed to be very bad news for Stephen Harper. But in manoeuvring the relationship well, the Prime Minister has suffered no collateral damage and may profit from the Democrat's decline if he can stir the Tea Party pot here.
It would take some doing. Mr. Harper is a lot of things but no visitor to this galaxy in recent years would declare him a populist. The input of conservative rank and file into policy-making in Ottawa is infinitesimal. Policy conventions of the old Reform Party sort have disappeared. The PM runs one of the most top-down governments in history, which is hardly in the spirit of the tea baggers. Moreover, he has expanded the size of government, a cardinal sin in their play books.
Last week, Mr. Harper's House Leader, John Baird, a limousine Conservative, tried to nail the Liberals with the elitist charge but was laughed out of one of his chi-chi bars for being a hypocrite with a cap H. Intellectually, Mr. Baird is no fool which, given the down-with-erudition approach of his party, presents problems for him as well, not to mention Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who has to cope with the burden of having a degree from Princeton.
That said, the Conservatives are still viewed as the party of freedom from the claws of governance and may be able to make hay with their fear-mongering charges that Liberals would have bureaucrats at every door checking for guns as well as forms not filled out. They have an Opposition Leader in Michael Ignatieff who is an intellectual patrician and won't be able to come off as a yokel, no matter how hard he tries. God only knows how many votes that is costing him in today's political environment. He and Mr. Obama must look back with fondness on the days when, if someone said you had no shortage of brains, it was viewed as a compliment.
The American President can by no means be written off. In the low forties in approval ratings, he is far ahead of where George W. Bush was in his last few years. Given the desperate condition of the country when he came to office, Mr. Obama could hardly have been expected to turn much around in less than two years. He will likely take a drubbing in the midterm elections, but many presidents have recovered from dismal midterm showings.
But the anger, the wedge politics, the debasement of the dialogue is not about to go away soon in either country. In each, it's the hard-line conservatives who control their parties. And it's always been true that the deeper runs the ideology, the deeper runs the rancour.
Could anyone imagine a dignified Tory like Robert Stanfield coming out with some of the venom that his party does today? To paraphrase an old line, if Mr. Stanfield - he lost three elections in a row, by the way - were alive today, he'd roll over in his grave.