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U.S. President Richard Nixon tours the halls of Parliament with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on April 14, 1972. (John McNeill)
U.S. President Richard Nixon tours the halls of Parliament with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on April 14, 1972. (John McNeill)

Brian Topp

No big tent means no big vote Add to ...

He ordered the withdrawal of 500,000 U.S. troops from a war that destroyed the credibility of his predecessor.

He reached out to a large, dangerous foreign nation that was governed according to the precepts of an ideology centred on the destruction of the United States and everything it stood for.

He dealt with an economic crisis through radical measures involving direct government interference in the market; made some concrete steps forward on the environment; and also took a few steps forward to reform America's grotesque health system.

Is this Barrack Obama, withdrawing from Iraq, reaching out to Iran and implementing the first stage of a progressive domestic agenda?

Nope. Those were the acts of Richard Nixon, who extricated America from Vietnam, went to China and on some files pursued a surprisingly centrist domestic agenda.

Americans well beyond Nixon's right-wing Republican base saw themselves in those elements of Nixon's agenda. Which is, I believe, a big part of why 47,169,841 Americans voted to re-elect him in 1972 - 60.7 percent of the vote.

Nixon, of course, didn't trust his own approach. He therefore simultaneously pursued a "dark side" strategy - appealing to Catholic, southern and working class voters with racist code words, and seeking to directly break his political opponents. Including by wiretapping them, with fateful consequences.

There are some lessons here for us, as Canada heads into 2010 led by another brooding and uncharismatic conservative.

Richard Nixon was re-elected with 60 per cent of the vote. Why can't Stephen Harper do that? Indeed, why can't Stephen Harper's Conservatives lastingly get above 38 per cent in polls, his 2008 election result?

The answer, I think, lies in the fact that Mr. Harper's government lacks this ability to move onto their opponents' ground and to make it theirs.

There is nothing in Mr. Harper's approach that disarms his opponents, fundamentally broadens his party's base, or changes the game. Once the current half-hearted stimulus program is wound up, Mr. Harper has committed his government to spending all of Canada's available resources on tax cuts, and is otherwise committed to inaction on all important issues. That is an accountant's agenda - an exercise in bean counting and dismantlement - not an inspiring "big tent" that can appeal beyond the Conservative party's core vote.

Further, while Mr. Harper has none of Mr. Nixon's ability to appeal beyond his base he has a touch of Mr. Nixon's dark side. Mr. Harper is capable of campaigning using anti-French Canadian code words, as we saw last fall. And he would directly break his political opponents if he could, as we also saw last fall.

To have many of Richard Nixon's darker instincts and few of his smarter ones does not serve our Prime Minister well. Mr. Harper and his government do not understand an electoral fundamental that his ideological ancestor did superbly well in at least one level of his layer-cake personality: if you want a big vote, pitch a big tent.

Three other thoughts as the new year begins:

The second annual Conservative prorogation of Parliament. Mr. Harper's press secretary casually announced just before the new year that our Prime Minister has once again decided to display his contempt for Parliament. Much to its credit, this website's mothership published a rare front-page editorial denouncing this latest outrage against our democracy.

It is a sad thing that Ottawa's governing political culture has corrupted this Prime Minister and his entourage so fundamentally. Mr. Harper and his party were committed to democratic reform once.

But it is also good motivation for the rest of us. This is a clever government but not a wise one - and it has once again given all of its opponents a reminder of why it needs to be defeated. Followed, hopefully, by a landmark Parliament Act that will refocus our appointed Governor-General on award presentations and seniors home openings where she can do no harm, and strike a new balance of power between our Napoleonic prime ministry and our national legislature.

A March budget. In addition to potentially setting up a spring election, the government's new parliamentary-calendar-by-royal-decree achieves an interesting tactical effect. It sits on top of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's March "thinkers' conference" in Montreal.

Mr. Ignatieff's year-end interviews included a misty-eyed commitment to reconquer Canada this winter by conducting a lengthy national tour of that place where (apparently, in Mr. Ignatieff's view) most Canadians are to be found - "the universities." His partisan March conference is supposed to be the highlight of this homecoming tour by the Liberal Leader. It now risks even further political irrelevance, given the new script for this spring.

Avatar. Finally, a little note about the holiday season's breakout film success, Avatar. It is a beautiful piece of work -richly imagined, exciting to watch, and with some big (if not unduly subtle) points to make. My younger son thought it was the best film he'd ever seen.

If you haven't seen it yet, here's an interesting little detail to look for. At two points we are given a look at a large open-pit mine being driven into a pristine, Eden-like planet. The technology we are shown (a piece of mining equipment that looks somewhat like this and a truck that looks very much like this) closely resembles a Canadian tar-sands development.

Possibly not a coincidence, given that James Cameron is a Canadian?

Canada's sole current environmental priority under our clever but not wise government - defending unlimited tar sands development - seems to be replacing Victorian satanic mills as the world-wide "avatar" of out-of-control development that must stopped. Which does Canada little credit. Just ask Eywa.

(Photo: The U.S. President tours the halls of Parliament with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on April 14, 1972. John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)

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