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CKA Uber
 Vancouver Canucks


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PostPosted: Sat Apr 30, 2011 7:46 am


Stephen Harper was greeted by a noisy protest as he pulled off the highway for a brief campaign stop in Kingston Friday. Most of the chanting and waving of middle digits came from young hotheads who will be cured simply by becoming taxpayers. But there was genuine anger about the closure of the local prison farm program by the Conservatives — sufficient that someone brought along a live cow to make their point.

It was a reminder of how polarizing a figure Mr. Harper remains, even after five years as Prime Minister.

The Cinderella story of Jack Layton’s rise is the most compelling narrative of this election. But Mr. Harper’s apparent failure to close the deal comes a close second.
He entered the campaign on the cusp of majority territory, needing only to nudge up his support a percentage point or two to reach the magic number required for majority. This is certainly what I was expecting even just last week. And it may yet happen, if voters decide en masse they can’t face the prospect of more political instability and the three-way vote splits all line up in the Conservatives’ favour.

An Ipsos Reid poll published Friday had the Tories at 38%, the same level that saw Jean Chrétien win a majority in 1997 (Ipsos Reid has the NDP at 33% and the Liberals, dear God, at 18%).

Still, my sense is that the rise of the NDP over the last week means it is more likely Mr. Harper will once again fall short of entering the Promised Land. Why?

One senior Conservative who has worked with him for years summed it up this way: “Harper appeals first, foremost and always to logic. Elections are first, foremost and always about emotion.”

There’s a sizeable proportion of the electorate that would never vote for Mr. Harper, appalled by what they see as his debasement of democracy. But there were enough undecided voters out there who could have been wooed by the right pitch.

Yet the Conservative leader has run a bland, plodder campaign that appeared to be designed to protect what they had, rather than grow the base.

Drew Westen, an American clinical psychologist, wrote a book called The Political Brain, that suggested elections are decided by emotion, not reason. In politics, when the two collide, emotion generally wins.

Politicians can manipulate voters by raising highly charged emotional issues like abortion, gay rights and family values. For understandable reasons, the Conservatives steered clear of these minefields and focused on the economy. It was a logical decision, given the Conservative Party’s strong reputation on the issue, but it has made Tory rallies as dry as a meeting of the local Rotary Club. It’s only when Mr. Harper raises gun control or crime that the audience is roused from its somnolence.

Mr. Layton has profited by appearing the most optimistic and hopeful candidate. Yet Mr. Harper has rarely sounded hopeful about the future — the rally in Kingston was one of the few occasions he has expressed his belief that “a generation of prosperity” awaits this country.

Since the days of Cicero, poltiicians have known the campaign tricks of keeping speeches short, remembering names, rendering complex issues simple and, above all, putting on a show. But Mr. Harper is an introvert in a job where extroverts flourish, something he has long acknowledged himself. “My strengths are not spin or passion. I believe it’s better to light one candle than to promise a million light bulbs,” he said during the 2006 election.

This may be an issue of style but there is also an issue of substance that has helped limit Mr. Harper’s appeal — his lack of empathy.

One of Mr. Harper’s biographers, William Johnson, compared the Conservative leader to Pierre Trudeau. “Both were unusual in combining with vision a keen sense of strategy and a flair for leadership, once they felt leadership imperatively thrust upon them.”

The success of the Conservative Party is testimony to Mr. Harper’s vision and leadership. He has built a moderate, mainstream, centre right party and Canadians are, by and large, comfortable with him as Prime Minister. As pollster Michael Adams said in a recent academic paper. “Canadians find him a less than magnetic figure but they don’t distrust him as much as much as his political opponents and the educated urban elite would like them to.”

Yet the evidence of Mr. Harper as a great strategist is less convincing than claims about his leadership and vision. Being one step ahead of your opponents requires a leader to have a strong reflexive function — the ability to respond to the behaviour of others and read their minds. Over the past few years, there are plenty of examples of Mr. Harper failing to make sense of people who don’t think like he does — the most prominent of which was the 2008 budget statement, with its move to choke off political funding. There is a reasonable case to be made that he doesn’t deal well with what he doesn’t understand and so has built up an outer perimeter to control events. He is comfortable in the company of fellow travellers but is wary of those for whom he has no respect, like the media or opposition politicians.

This manifests itself in micro-management, centralization of power, excessive partisanship and a disregard for the traditions of the House of Commons. Another Harper biographer, Lawrence Martin, quoted former Conservative minister David Emerson as being shocked by the “visceral hatred” the Prime Minister and his team displayed toward their political opponents. This may play well with the Conservative base but turns off those who are not true believers.

It looks very much like the work solidifying the Conservative base has paid off but it suggests the party has a ceiling it cannot break through with the current leader. At some point the party is going to have to consider whether having a rock solid base of 35% and a ceiling of 38% is the best option, or whether it might be worth risking the base slipping to 28%, in the hope that the ceiling rises to 45%. Some senior Conservatives are already mulling the prospect of “opening up a bit” by taking less dogmatic policy positions.

Voters want to know their Prime Minister; they want to feel he or she cares about them and their issues. The Conserative campaign slogan is “Here for Canada.” But it looks very much as if Mr. Harper has not made enough Canadians feel he is here for them.

National Post


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