If even a fraction of the darkness that his haters say has descended upon Canada under Stephen Harper was real, then the opening line of any election victory speech by Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau could only be: "My fellow Canadians, our long national nightmare is over."
In less than a decade, during most of which Mr. Harper led a minority government, Canada has gone from a "haven" of enlightened liberalism and goodness to a hermit kingdom run by a small-minded tyrant propagating, in the words of one excitable critic, "know-nothing conservatism."
Just what it is about the Conservative Leader that sends reasonable people into such fits of hysteria is best examined by historians, or better yet, psychiatrists. But it surely can't be evidence, for Mr. Harper's political style is not particularly novel, nor have his reforms been that transformational.
Rather, Mr. Harper cultivates his base with mostly rhetorical, and only occasionally policy-driven, validations of their beliefs and value systems. It's largely window dressing. For the most part, he governs from the centre, upholding the long Canadian tradition of middle-of-the-road pragmatism. So much so that movement conservatives who once considered him one of them feel utterly betrayed.
If the Harper government seems more obsessed with spin than its predecessors, it's partly because the science of political message control and targeting has undergone a revolution in the Internet-Big Data age. Mr. Harper's government, like President Barack Obama's administration south of the border, has simply been in the right place at the right time to make the most of it.
Yes, the Conservatives have made some questionable policy choices in the name of stroking their base. Killing the long-form census was one. The form had been a long-standing bugaboo among conservatives who felt the state has no business knowing the granular details of their lives. Its demise has inconvenienced some researchers, but it has hardly led to a "subtle darkening of Canadian life." Somehow when it comes to critiquing Mr. Harper, all perspective gets thrown out the window.
Nothing infuriates the critics more – and this is where their slip shows – than his success at usurping the political tools their side once used to corner the market. He's turned the Liberals' invention of multiculturalism against them. He's wooed suburban couples with kids away from the Liberals with an array of dubiously useful family-friendly tax credits.
The truth is, Mr. Harper does not play to his base any more than the NDP's Mr. Mulcair or the Liberals' Mr. Trudeau play to theirs. But because elites in the media and academe have deemed Conservative supporters a less evolved species than the progressive subclass to which they themselves belong, they are beside themselves at the loss of their own influence.
Autocratic, Stephen Harper? Well, yes, like just about every other successful prime minister from John A. Macdonald to Mackenzie King to Jean Chrétien. The centralization of decision making in the Prime Minister's Office is a phenomenon much bigger than Mr. Harper and it would take wholesale parliamentary, if not constitutional, reform to reverse the trend.
What's fairly clear is that a Mulcair PMO would not be expected to operate in a meaningfully different manner. The NDP Leader is as much a control freak and ruthless enforcer of caucus discipline. How else do you think he has kept his neophyte MPs in Quebec from embarrassing him too much? The worry with Mr. Trudeau is that his lack of experience would allow unelected political aides or bureaucrats to wield most of the power in a Trudeau PMO. But that doesn't mean the PMO would be any less dominant in a Trudeau government.
Mr. Harper may deserve to take a hit for the Senate expense scandal. The questions raised at Senator Mike Duffy's fraud trial about the conduct of Mr. Harper's closest staff in the PMO, and the Conservative Leader himself, are not flattering. But in the annals of Canadian political scandals – a fairly tame volume to begin with – this is a footnote.
Most voters basically believe all politicians are self-interested maximizers and judge them on their intelligence, competence, likeability and integrity. They know they can't get everything on their wish list. It could be that, after 10 years, they'll decide they've had enough of Mr. Harper.
And the hysterics won't have Harper to kick around any more.