Let me know if you’ve heard this one. Republicans need to move to the center and nominate moderate candidates that will accommodate an America that is moving to the left. They need to find candidates from outside their declining base who can appeal to an ever more diverse country. Republicans need to ditch social conservatives and pick the kind of “pragmatists” that are favored by the party’s consultant and lobbying classes. This may sound appealing to some, but it isn’t how Canada’s Conservative Party regained power.
Paul Wells tells the story of Canada’s Stephen Harper’s rise from a conservative activist to prime minister. Canada’s right was divided between a more conservative and Western Canada-based Canadian Alliance and a more moderate (and smaller) Progressive Conservative Party. Harper, with his activist roots, was not the kind of guy you’d expect to unite the warring factions, let alone go on to lead them to three consecutive wins in federal elections.
The candidate to bring the Conservative Party to the center of power should have been someone from the . . . center. It should have been someone like former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark who had governed for nine months. Clark had gone back on his campaign promise to cut taxes, and had been ejected from office, but he was respected by Canada’s liberal-leaning journalistic and bureaucratic elites. As Wells writes, “Such a lovely guy. Every liberal loves a Conservative loser.” They don’t love Stephen Harper.
But this is no place for a counter-myth in which a principled “real” conservative gives two-hundred proof ideology to the people and reaps the electoral rewards. Harper came from his party’s base and he shared its economic and social conservatism. He wanted to govern based on his principles, but he also knew that conservatives could not get everything they wanted entirely on their own terms. Harper wasn’t like his party’s liberals. He did not want to very slightly slow down history’s leftward movement and he did not want his party’s base to just vote for him on election day and then leave the face of the Earth. Harper also knew that his base was not large enough to win by itself. If Harper wanted to move the country at all to the right, he would have to find the common ground between his conservative base and persuadable voters—including some voters who did not even know that they could be persuaded to vote for a conservative candidate.
This attitude could be seen in how Harper related to survey data. He didn’t just want to know people’s positions on a given issue. He wanted survey questions that would get at people’s underlying values and find those areas where the perspectives of his conservative base and persuadable voters overlapped.
Harper focused on moving policy in the direction he wanted, but in ways that had the broadest possible appeal. Some in his party might have wanted tax cuts for high-earners, but cutting the Goods and Services Tax (a kind of value-added tax) had broader support. It helped Harper get to a lower tax and lower spending policy outcome. Harper was able to make gains among Canadian immigrant populations while supporting Canada’s skill and language proficiency-based immigration system.
There are many differences between the politics of Canada and the politics of the USA, so that the lessons of Stephen Harper are more in the approach than in the details. The United States does not have a Goods and Services Tax to cut, but Republicans can give up their attempts to bring down the top marginal tax rate to below the George W. Bush levels and instead focus on increasing the take home pay of working parents. It might not be the first choice of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but the key is finding the broadest constituency for a relatively lower tax and lower spending politics.
The politics of immigration are different in the US and Canada, but Republicans would be well served to follow Harper’s example and make better use of ethnic media. They could also come to America’s immigrant communities with a set of policies that would be consistent with conservative principles but also have direct benefits to workers who are at or just under the earnings median. Just about anything would be an improvement over the Romney experience where the Republican candidate lost ground among Asian and Latino voters compared to 2008 despite more favorable electoral circumstances.
Stephen Harper has been reticent to talk about social issues, but the College Republican survey of young voters indicates that there is a disjunction between how young people feel about abortion policy and the abortion extremism of the Obama-era national Democratic party. It would be against the inclinations of the Washington consultant class but, in the American context, the common ground is between conservative pro-lifers in the Republican base and people with at least moderately pro-life inclinations who don’t even know about the Democratic party’s abortion extremism.
This leaves us with the problem of leadership. Can the American right produce a figure (or figures) who can offer conservatives a way between slow motion surrender on the one hand and isolation on the other? Can American conservatives come up with a politics that connects with their existing base and with the persuadable voters that are needed to make not just a majority, but (what is more important) a majority that can produce better policy?