It’s been years now since Stephen Harper moved into 24 Sussex. Throughout, there’s been plenty of speculation about how far he’s determined to shift Canada to the right.
The Prime Minister has never tried to camouflage that his personal values are conservative. But he's also consistently maintained he won't pursue a conservative agenda on hot-button social issues. And on economic issues, the PM's approach has felt like “we won’t rock the boat, not much anyway.”
Over time then, the argument Mr. Harper’s critics have often used -- that he's a radical who will change the country dramatically -- sits more and more uncomfortably alongside the evidence, as many voters have judged it.
The “he's too far right” attack is of decaying value for opposition leaders. Once the most promising platform for Mr. Harper’s opponents, now it may be the weakest one they could choose. It doesn't really work for them, and there’s a pretty good chance it helps Stephen Harper.
Attentive voters will have heard radical conservatives sounding dismayed by the PM's pace and some of his biggest decisions. But beyond this, the centrist swing voters Mr. Harper needs to win over are concluding that however conservative his personal views, his approach as PM is not too radical for their tastes, especially compared with expectations. They were told to expect Margaret Thatcher without the accent, a less avuncular Ronald Reagan. What did they get?
Mr. Harper spent massively during the recession -- hard to square with the idea that he’s a fiscal radical. He’s moving to cut spending, but his approach is presented as restrained and measured not reckless slashing and indifference to the pain it causes. True, he looks more radical than leading Democrats and Republicans south of the border, but who wouldn’t want him to?
Instead of dismantling public health care, he promises to pay the bills, and keep his hands off provincial jurisdiction. He’s been working to strengthen the military, but is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Our role in Libya seems designed not for militaristic chest pounding, but low profile efficiency.
It was argued that Mr. Harper would trample rights and over-police Canada. There are concerns about the handling of the G8 and G20 summits, for sure, and lots of voters wonder if we need more jail cells, but still it seems to me that opposition politicians will struggle to make a meal out of “Harper equals too much law and order.”
Looking ahead, it’s more likely that a Harper government will become vulnerable on matters of performance and tone, not ideology. The Prime Minister seems determined to avoid the latter, and no government can ever fully avoid the former.
Things that toppled Liberal governments past are the biggest risk for governments to come: a sluggish economy, a sense of creeping arrogance and entitlement, a feeling of staleness and lack of creativity and passion for the job, excessive secrecy, reflexive defensiveness. In all likelihood, these are the flanks Mr. Harper must keep from exposing, and the soft flesh that his opponents must work at, as the next few years unfold.