I've been feeling kind of sorry for my liberal friends. They can't stand Stephen Harper. They wince when they hear his name. And yet, in spite of his disagreeable personality, his grip on power is stronger than ever. He has lasted an improbable five years. He has run the longest minority government in Canada's history and held office longer than Lester Pearson. Aaargh!
On the radio Monday, a Liberal academic was explaining just what makes Mr. Harper so despicable. He's been stealing Liberal policies! Now that's dirty. Everyone was certain he would move the country to the right. Instead, he moved the party to the left. He racked up stimulus deficits by the billions and expanded the size of government. He pleased the people by handing them deductions for their kids' hockey gear. He even quashed an unpopular foreign takeover - only the second veto of a foreign bid in 25 years. The Financial Post went nuts. Who does this guy think he is - Maude Barlow?
Put another way, for everyone who's attacking Mr. Harper for being too conservative, someone else is attacking him for not being conservative enough. In politics, this is known as "finding the sweet spot." Both the Liberals and the right-wing National Citizens' Coalition, which he used to head, are accusing him of reckless spending. Even Peter Mansbridge challenged him for failing to live up to his small-c conservative ideals. (I wonder how the conversation would have gone if Mr. Harper had slashed the CBC.)
Meantime, Toronto Star columnists are in a quandary. Mr. Harper has inconveniently embraced just the sort of fiscal policies endorsed by the Toronto Star. But it would be wrong to congratulate him. So instead, they are attacking him for shamelessly abandoning his principles. The ruthless ideologue they attacked in 2006 has turned into a ruthless opportunist.
Then there's what he didn't do. He didn't try to recriminalize abortion. He didn't try to repeal gay marriage or bring back hanging. He didn't consort with Christian evangelicals. For the most part, he has religiously avoided the ugly culture wars that have ripped America to shreds. Is that diabolical, or what?
In fact, about the worst thing Mr. Harper's critics can find to accuse him of is his less than scintillating personality. (No argument there.) "Harper still fails to inspire," the Star groused in its five-year-anniversary editorial. Also, as you will have heard by now, he's a control freak. My colleague Lawrence Martin has written a brilliant book on the Prime Minister's governing style. In it, we learn that Mr. Harper has a naked desire to win, is a relentless micromanager, rules his party with an iron fist and will do anything it takes to attain a majority. He wants the Conservatives to replace the Liberals as the Natural Governing Party and obliterate them from the face of the Earth - even if he's got to steal their best ideas to do it.
In other words, he's a shrewd and focused political operator who gets results. The Liberals should be so lucky.
Mr. Harper's critics like to froth about his contempt for process. Others froth about his lack of vision. But the vast majority of Canadians don't care. What they really care about is whether their jobs and savings and property values are reasonably secure and whether their kids will be able to find work. As the traumatized countries of the West grapple with their biggest scare in decades, what they really want is for an adult to be in charge. Canadians are acutely aware that unlike the Americans, the British, the Irish, the Spanish, the Greeks, the Portuguese and God knows who else, we've gotten off lightly. We want a guy at the top who we are pretty sure can keep it that way. We don't have to like him. We can even loathe him. But we'll keep on putting up with him, so long as he doesn't screw it up.