Something alarming happened over the summer – several of my friends came down with Harper Derangement Syndrome.
"He's gotta go!" fumed one middle-aged man who had voted for him three times in a row.
"I just can't stand him any more," said another. Both are independent voters who pride themselves on their rational, non-partisan approach to politics.
So what's the problem with Mr. Harper? Is it the Duffy affair? The militant foreign policy? The highly dubious tough-on-crime agenda?
No, not really. It's just … him. He's too controlling, too snarly, too mean. He picked a fight with Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. He sounded callous about murdered native women. It's not the policies or even the scandals – it's the tone. They just don't like the guy.
So, do they think Justin Trudeau (or Thomas Mulcair) would run the country any better? They shrugged. The question didn't interest them. What does interest them is getting rid of Mr. Harper.
This visceral dislike of the Prime Minister explains the disconnect in the polls as we head into what is going to feel like another interminable election season. A lot of people think the country is on the right track (43 per cent, according to a recent Abacus poll, against 25 per cent who say it's on the wrong track). But just 33 per cent of voters "approve" of the government's performance. And just 19 per cent think the Conservatives have governed "well enough to deserve re-election." Which leaves quite a few who don't.
The Tories have blasted Mr. Trudeau for lacking substance, but the country doesn't care. The pundits have blasted him for being vague about his policies, but people don't care about that either. As Brian Mulroney aptly observed, Mr. Trudeau's major platform is that he's not Stephen Harper. For now, that's enough. All he has to do is bat his eyes and toss his hair and look winsome.
In any event, the policy differences between the Liberals and Conservatives aren't that great. Their economic philosophy is basically the same. Neither party believes in raising taxes on the middle class. Both are big supporters of free trade. Mr. Trudeau will promise prudent economic management with a smiley face. What's not to like?
Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Trudeau believes that resource extraction, the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline are generally good things. Like Mr. Harper, he's been conspicuously silent about meeting Canada's Copenhagen target for carbon emissions, because he knows there's not a hope in hell that it will happen. On foreign policy, the differences are rhetorical, not substantive. Mr. Trudeau is a staunch friend of Israel and Ukraine. Like Mr. Harper, he has no plan to increase defence spending, even though the North Atlantic Treaty Organization wants him to.
The big splits are on cultural issues – law and order, abortion, marijuana policy. But even there, the two sides aren't as far apart as you might think. Mr. Trudeau isn't stupid enough to try passing an abortion law. He won't go easy on child pornography. As for marijuana, even the Conservatives have opened the door to decriminalizing simple possession.
On his economic record alone, Mr. Harper should be a slam-dunk. Per capita GDP has increased 3.1 per cent (in 2007 dollars) since he's been in office. Average weekly earnings are up 9.9 per cent. Real after-tax income is up 10.2 per cent for lower-income earners, up 6.7 per cent for middle-income earners, and up 8.9 per cent for higher-income earners. (Hat tip to economist Stephen Gordon, who crunched these numbers for Maclean's.) So much for wage stagnation.
But voters who are feeling secure might also be feeling secure enough to take a flyer on someone new. They're not as fearful as they were before. They can afford to roll the dice on the pretty boy.
The best thing Mr. Harper could do to improve his re-election prospects would be to undergo a radical personality transplant. Unfortunately, that is still beyond the means of science. He is who he is, and he can't help it.