Analogies are often incomplete, but former U.S. president Richard Nixon is the North American postwar politician who, it could be argued, most resembles Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Of course, times and countries are different. Mr. Nixon governed a superpower during the Cold War; Mr. Harper governs a second-tier country with no capacity to shape international events. Jihadi terror did not confront Mr. Nixon, as it does Mr. Harper. No one talked about climate change in Mr. Nixon's time; Mr. Harper doesn't talk about it now.
It's the similarities of temperament and personality and political strategies that commend comparisons. If you wonder, reread colleague John Ibbitson's penetrating essay about Mr. Harper in last weekend's Globe and Mail, a distillation of his biography of Mr. Harper that will soon be available online.
Mr. Ibbitson spent a long time trying to understand Mr. Harper. Much of his portrait could apply almost line for line for Mr. Nixon. A loner with few close friends. Someone who felt rejected by his society's cultural, economic and political elites, and who nursed a lifelong resentment against them. Secretive. Given to titanic bursts of anger.
Hard-working and intelligent. Distrustful of all but a handful of advisers. Deeply hostile to the media. (Remember Mr. Nixon's shot at the media after losing the 1962 gubernatorial election in California? "You don't have Nixon to kick around any more.") Suspicious of "enemies" in the civil service, civic society and the judiciary, and willing to use the institutions of the state to stir public resentments against them.
Both knew how to appeal to the hurts and interests of self-identified members of a mythical middle class who felt slighted or ignored. Mr. Nixon called them "forgotten" Americans, a description Mr. Harper would find comfortable for his targeted voters in Canada.
Neither man displayed much public religiosity, but used organized religion, especially evangelical Christianity, to improve their party's chances – in the U.S. South for Mr. Nixon; in rural and small-town Canada for Mr. Harper.
A burning ambition drove them to succeed in politics, on their terms. Mr. Nixon never stopped dreaming of the White House after narrowly losing the 1960 presidential election. Mr. Harper is not satisfied with nine years in power (longer than a U.S. president would be allowed) but wants another four years.
There has been no Watergate in Canada, with its lying and perversion of the institutions of the state to cover up crimes, but elements of the Conservative Party have been found to have cheated or broken the law in every election under Mr. Harper. Yet, he has survived these embarrassments (we shall see the fallout from the Mike Duffy trial) that pale in importance compared with the Watergate scandal that caused Mr. Nixon's resignation.
Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Nixon did very little outside politics. Political life shaped his career as congressman, vice-president, would-be-president and finally president; just as Mr. Harper has spent almost his entire adult life in politics, apart from a brief hiatus running a small office of the National Citizens Coalition in Calgary. As lifetime politicians, their world view came through the prism of partisan politics, an endless battle between competing forces.
Mr. Nixon implemented a so-called Southern strategy that turned on attracting white voters who disliked the civil-rights revolution. The entire region, once a Democratic Party bastion, began to turn Republican under Mr. Nixon. The Republican Party, previously reviled in the South as the party of emancipation, became perceived as the counterrevolutionary party against the fallout from civil rights.
Mr. Harper has what might be called his ethnic strategy, appealing to multicultural groups, the majority of whose members had voted Liberal: Sikhs, South Asians, Chinese, Vietnamese, East Europeans. He has used every tool, from foreign policy to domestic affairs, to woo these groups. He has also targeted Canada's long-established Jewish communities with his undiluted support for Israel.
Each man built a reshaped political coalition that proved successful for them. Those coalitions relied on mobilizing core constituencies that were fiercely loyal. But in appealing almost exclusively to those constituencies, the Republican Party cut itself off from huge swaths of increasingly diverse U.S. voters (Hispanics, African-Americans and women).
The Harper Conservatives, as they enter the election campaign, have lost about a quarter of those who supported them last time. They are the least-favoured, second-choice party.