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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)


Lincoln: For Stephen Harper, a political script worth following Add to ...

Before Christmas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took along a large number of Conservative caucus members to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, now nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Afterward, there apparently was a discussion about the film, led by Mr. Harper.

We can only surmise what was said, but hardened politicos, having watched a political film, were unlikely to spend much time on camera angles or lighting or, indeed, about historical accuracy. (The film was very accurate). Instead, chances are they talked about the political lessons embedded in Lincoln.

The film was based largely on Team of Rivals, the wonderful book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about how Abraham Lincoln brought into his administration those who had opposed him for the Republican presidential nomination. Each considered himself superior to Lincoln in just about every way. But Lincoln moulded them, or most of them, into a coherent team that helped him handle the Civil War, relations with other countries (notably Britain) and domestic policies.

So why would Mr. Harper want his group to see this film? It couldn’t have been about how to fight a war or the perils of secession. No, more likely, the central message the Prime Minister wanted his team to appreciate was: We stick together, especially in adversity. Unity at all costs must be our abiding purpose, especially in tough times.

And there probably was another message: that politics is about the marriage of principles to circumstances, a marriage that invariably means compromise, such as those Lincoln had to make to secure just enough votes to pass in the House of Representatives the constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.

Mr. Harper’s government has made compromises and changed its approach in some vital areas. An avowed fiscal conservative, Mr. Harper let spending grow fast before the recession and faster still in its aftermath. An “open for business” government blocked the takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. A critic of government involvement in business has put money into the auto sector, just created a new venture capital fund, finances the aerospace industry and has created new regional development agencies.

It would be beyond whatever hubris Mr. Harper has – and he doesn’t possess much – to compare himself to Lincoln. But it would be important for everyone on the Harper team to know something about the solitary nature of a life in politics. Although in the public eye and subject to pressure from every direction, the person at the top, as with Lincoln, is ultimately alone.

Cardboard history sometimes suggests that Lincoln towered politically over his generation; in fact, however, he had to fight for the nomination and looked beatable late in his first term. The war was going poorly; the casualties were staggering; the voices calling for peace were rising. As the film shows, even after Lincoln’s re-election, politicians urging a peaceful settlement to the ghastly conflict were active. Even when the war was going much better for the North, with victory in sight, Congress remained divided, largely along partisan lines, over slavery and the shape of a postwar settlement.

Keeping his team together is easier for Mr. Harper than for leaders of previous Progressive Conservative governments. The coalitions of Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark sprawled across parts of the political spectrum from Red Tories, very moderate types on almost all issues, to much more ideological conservatives.

Keeping such diversity within the limits of the tolerable was a more difficult task than with Mr. Harper’s more monochromatic right-wing group. What used to be called the “Diefenbaker cowboy” elements in the Progressive Conservative Party of the 1970s and 1980s – MPs who often gave Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark such grief – are now in the political saddle inside the Harper government.

Lincoln led a sprawling party, ranging from abolitionists to those who sought a negotiated peace with the slavery issue tabled until later. Lincoln didn’t enter the Civil War intending to abolish slavery. Abolition evolved in his mind, and from the circumstances of the time. Leaders must marry their instincts of what’s right with the limits of what’s possible.

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