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As long as the left remains split, the Conservatives can win with small-tent politics and a third of the electorate
As long as the left remains split, the Conservatives can win with small-tent politics and a third of the electorate

Lawrence Martin

The Tories risk all on narrow appeal and wedge issues Add to ...

Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy, the peanut farmer, once made an interesting observation about the reason for Ronald Reagan's success. "He makes Americans feel comfortable with their prejudices," she said.

That's political gold for a leader. It's especially true if, as in the case of the Gipper, it's accompanied with an aw-shucks, big Hollywood smile.

Watching our Conservatives, you get the feeling - although they have a leader who lacks that president's big-sky appeal - that they are trying to touch on the population's biases in a similar way.

Nowadays, even more than before, they're into small-tent politics, the kind of thing that makes base supporters comfortable. That base is barely a third of the electorate, but owing to fractionalization on the left, a vote haul of this range is good enough to win.

So while a big majority of Canadian women might be pro-choice, there are probably enough anti-abortion advocates to cover off the one-third number the party needs. Conservative policy-making or shading in other areas such as gun ownership, climate change, gay rights and the Middle East can be done in a similar cynical optic. The biases of a one-third minority become triumphant. Small-tenters carry the day. Wedge politics - the politics of polarization - is the way.

It's not a new phenomenon; it's often seen in minority governments. But it's an accentuated one. Its roots are in the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives in 2004. Through their history, the PCs were a big-tent party. A hard-line faction resided within the party, but it was always contained. Finally, the starboard rump evolved into a separate entity, the Reform Party, which became the Alliance. Then the merger came and it was a lopsided affair. The Alliance had the bulk of caucus members and, in Stephen Harper, the leader.

It was just a matter of time before the old big-tent Tories were practically swallowed whole. With today's Conservatives, what was once a pavilion is more like an awning. The old PCs won mammoth majorities in 1958 and 1984. The new small-tenters don't even think in those terms.

The narrow casting of the party's appeal has been most evident in social and foreign policy, while in economic policy-making, recessionary conditions have forced a different approach.

The old Tory Flora MacDonald, who worked in John Diefenbaker's office, was spotted at a disarmament gig recently. "It's awful," she said of the new breed. "They're not progressive conservatives."

This week, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff struck hard on the big-tent theme. In a major speech, his opening line was: "We are the big tent at the centre of Canadian politics. And we always will be." He then ticked off the policy areas in which the Conservatives are hiving themselves on the right.

Mr. Ignatieff was struggling to differentiate himself in a trenchant way from the governing party. The Conservatives' small-tenting has provided him with an opportunity to do so.

The fevered manner in which the Conservatives took after pollster Frank Graves for advocating that the Liberals go with a culture-war strategy suggests they have something to fear. Mr. Harper called on his No. 1 attack dog, Senator Doug Finley, to skewer the CBC for employing Mr. Graves. The CBC ombudsman cleared the pollster this week, saying Mr. Finley's campaign was "paranoia-tinged."

If the Conservatives have any fear, it lies in the possibility that Mr. Ignatieff will indeed find a strong Canadian definition, enabling him to recapture support that has been drifting away to smaller left-side parties. The Tories need those percolating divisions on the left so that their wedge politics and low-30s support numbers can carry the day.

The wedge is a risky strategy. Opponents can well make the case that this country is too big for small tents.

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