Bush's Canadian 'Clone' in Jeopardy
The political decision by American voters on Nov. 7 – flushing away Republican control of the U.S. Congress – is reverberating north of the border where Canada’s hard-line Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper may become the next ally of George W. Bush to be washed away.
Harper, who modeled his aggressive brand of conservatism on what the Republicans had done in the United States, is struggling in the polls and confronting a reenergized Liberal opposition that was encouraged by the Democratic victory.
“You don’t have to be afraid of these guys anymore,” said Liberal Party spokesman Tait Simpson, summarizing the lesson learned from the American electorate’s rejection of the GOP’s tough-talking politics.
The Canadian Liberals, whose corruption scandals a couple of years ago paved the way for Harper’s victory in January 2006, selected a new leader, Stephane Dion, on Dec. 4 and are expected to challenge Harper’s shaky coalition as early as February.
The latest opinion surveys look grim for Harper. A pre-Christmas poll showed a surge in Liberal support, rising to slightly over 40 percent. Harper’s Conservatives stood at 33 percent with the Bloc Quebecois, the Greens and uncommitted dividing the remainder.
Dion has advocated what he calls “the three pillars” – the environment, social justice and the economy – as the policy structure for a Liberal victory. In announcing his new platform, Dion told Canadians that he was mobilizing his party toward a vote of no confidence against Harper, expected on a Bloc Quebecois measure in February.
Harper’s defeat in Canada would mean that yet another one of President Bush’s international compatriots would be out of a job. Among Bush’s key global allies, Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Aznar lost in 2004, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi got the boot in 2006; and British Prime Minister Tony Blair has agreed to step down this year.
Canada’s rejection of Harper, known as “un clone de Bush,” also would be a blow to the already battered psyche of Republicans because Harper copied many of their strategies, even consulting with the architects of what was supposed to be a permanent Republican majority in the United States.
Now facing minority status in the U.S. Congress and finding their standard-bearer Bush with a public approval of only about 30 percent, the once-confident Republicans have found that their strategy of exploiting wedge issues and relying on aggressive media outlets to demonize opponents may have its limits.
An American Import
I first took note of the right-wing U.S. strategies that Harper was importing to Canada while visiting my wife’s relatives in Ontario last summer.
As an American journalist, I had always been struck by how ardently Canada’s political discourse focused on substance – the budget, health care, schools, roads – without the cheap theatrics and angry divisions common in the United States.
But suddenly I noticed that the tone of Canada had changed. There was a nastier edge to the commentary. There were not so subtle appeals to racism and xenophobia, references to Muslim neighborhoods in Quebec as “Quebecistan” and to Lebanese-Canadians as “Hezbocrats,” a play on the Muslim group Hezbollah.
It was as if a virus that had long infected the people south of the border had overnight jumped containment and spread northward establishing itself in a new host population. But – as I began to study this new phenomenon – it became clear that this infection did not just accidentally break quarantine.
Rather, it was willfully injected into the Canadian body politic by conservative strategists and right-wing media moguls who had studied the modern American model and were seeking to replicate it.
Harper even had brought in Republican advisers, such as political consultant Frank Luntz, to give pointers on how the Conservative Party could become as dominant in Canada as the GOP was in the United States.
Canada had its version of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News in the Asper brothers and their CanWest Global Communications Corp., which owns the National Post, the Montreal Gazette and nine other Canadian newspapers, 25 television outlets and two radio stations.
It was the Montreal Gazette and the National Post that trumpeted the phrase “Quebecistan” after demonstrators in Ottawa and Montreal protested Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in summer 2006.
CanWest’s National Post even offered up a Canadian version of Ann Coulter in columnist Barbara Kay.
In one of Kay’s columns, she noted that 50,000 Lebanese-Canadians lived in Montreal and added, “We can expect those numbers to swell as Hezbollah-supporting residents of southern Lebanon cash in on their Canadian citizenship and flee to safety.”
Kay denounced Quebec as “the most anti-Israel of the provinces and therefore the most vulnerable to tolerance for Islamist terrorist sympathizers.”
“The word would go out to the Islamophere that Quebec was the Londonistan,” Kay wrote. “It won’t if our political class takes its cues from principled Stephen Harper rather than shameless Quebec politicians who led the pro-terrorist rally.”
Harper, Canada’s photogenic 47-year-old prime minister, had become the face of modern Canadian conservatism much as George W. Bush came to personify right-wing politics in the United States.
Born in Toronto in 1959, Harper moved west to Alberta in 1978 to work in the petroleum industry. Similarly, Bush cut his teeth as a Texas oilman, albeit a failed one.
Much as that oilfield experience shaped Bush’s swaggering persona and Texas money fueled the American Right, so too did Alberta and its oil industry influence the political development of Harper and the emergence of modern Canadian conservatism.
By 1985, then in his mid-20s, Harper had turned to politics, gaining recognition as a bright operative and landing a job as chief aide to a Tory member of Parliament named Jim Hawkes.
But Harper grew disenchanted with the compromising style of Canada’s Tories who – like Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – often worked collaboratively with other political parties in Ottawa to maintain social programs for Canadians. Harper concluded that Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party was too liberal, so he quit it in 1986.
At age 28, Harper was recruited by Preston Manning, the founder of Canada’s Reform Party, and became the party’s chief political officer. Harper ran for the House of Commons against his old mentor, Hawkes, in 1988, losing badly.
But the defeat did not dampen Harper’s political ambitions. He continued to puzzle over how a revamped conservative movement might shake up Canadian politics and ultimately gain power.
For inspiration in building this new brand of Canadian conservatism, Harper looked to Washington, where Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, was promoting a combative style designed to shatter the longtime Democratic grip on the U.S. House of Representatives. In Gingrich’s view, Republicans had to replace cooperation with confrontation.
In 1993, Harper ran for the House of Commons again, this time aided by a tactic pioneered by U.S. conservatives – having ostensibly independent organizations tear down one’s opponent with large sums of money outside the legal limits on campaign spending.
In this case, a group called the National Citizens Coalition went on the offensive against MP Hawkes, undermining his political support enough so that Harper was able to win the seat in Calgary West.
Harper was learning, too, from conservative spinmeister Frank Luntz, who helped Gingrich draft the “Contract With America,” which became the centerpiece of the Republican victory in the U.S. Congress in 1994. Luntz was a specialist at the take-no-prisoners-style of politics that envisioned permanent conservative control of Washington.
Harper picked up other tips from Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, such as the importance of transforming the Christian evangelical movement into an activist base for conservative politics.
A New Party
Harper’s brash conservatism grated on the more populist positions of Manning’s Reform Party, which once rebuked Harper for not standing with the party’s internal policies. For his part, Harper considered Manning too inclined to compromise.
In January 1997, Harper resigned his Reform Party seat in Parliament and went to work as vice president of the National Citizens Coalition, the outside organization that had helped Harper defeat Hawkes in 1993. Harper soon rose to be the coalition’s president and served notice that the group would become a vehicle for smashing Canada’s political status quo.
In a speech in the United States to a major conservative organization, the Council for National Policy, Harper declared that “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worse sense of the term, and very proud of it.”
Back in Canada, Harper also began ratcheting up the political rhetoric, co-authoring an article referring to Canada’s Liberal government as a “benign dictatorship” held together by incompetence. The article also sought conservative unity and praised the hard-edged right-wing commentary in media outlets owned by mogul Conrad Black.
As this Americanized version of Canadian conservatism took shape, Harper was cribbing, too, from another rising U.S. politician, George W. Bush. Harper said his goal was to tap into a political base “similar to what George Bush tapped.”
Amid a surge of anti-minority sentiments, Harper merged his operations at the Canadian Conservative Alliance with those of Peter MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. In 2003, they officially formed the Conservative Party of Canada.
Their timing was perfect. As with the congressional Democrats in the United States a decade earlier, the Canadian Liberal Party found itself beset with corruption allegations and suffering from growing public resentment about high taxes.
In contrast to these tainted Liberals was the fresh-faced Harper at the head of a shiny new movement with powerful backing from right-wing interest groups, neoconservative media outlets and stirred-up social conservatives.
Though Conrad Black’s media empire had collapsed in a financial scandal, some of his properties, such as the National Post, were snapped up by CanWest Global, which shared Black’s staunchly pro-Israeli stance on Middle East affairs.
Harper also brought into play evangelical Protestants, through his membership in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which opposed gay rights, was staunchly anti-abortion and targeted North Africa’s Muslims for conversion to Christianity.
In 2004, Harper engineered a political breakthrough for the Conservatives in Ontario, boosting their standing in the House of Commons by 25 seats.
This new conservative coalition flexed its muscles again in January 2006, denying the Liberals control of Parliament by claiming 124 seats (out of 308) and putting Harper in position to piece together a minority government, which he did.
Harper was sworn in as Canada’s prime minister on Feb. 6, 2006, consolidating right-wing political power across the North American continent. President Bush finally had a likeminded Canadian leader who also shared Washington’s neoconservative doctrine for confronting the Islamic world.
The tone of Canadian political discourse followed this shift in the government, especially with CanWest media outlets ready to trumpet news that puts the Islamic world in the worst possible light.
For instance, on May 19, 2006, the National Post published a front-page article by expatriate Iranian journalist Amir Taheri, claiming that Iran was enacting legislation that would require color-coded “badges” for Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.
“Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the colour red” and Zoroastrians would wear blue, Taheri reported in the article distributed by Benador Associates, a public relations firm representing neoconservative writers, such as Michael Ledeen and Richard Perle.
With its obvious Holocaust allusion, Taheri’s story flashed around the world, picked up by the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh and the powerful U.S.-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Harper and Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, who was visiting Canada, joined in denouncing Iran for the purported badge legislation.
However, Taheri’s article turned out to be untrue. The Iranian legislation contained nothing about making religious minorities wear colored badges. After the facts were challenged, the National Post retracted the story and later published an apology.
Despite the lingering embarrassment over the bogus “colored badge” story, CanWest’s neoconservative attitudes resurfaced in July 2006 when war broke out between Israel and Lebanon.
As Israeli bombers inflicted heavy civilian casualties in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers, Lebanese-Canadians staged protests demanding that Israel cease its attacks.
CanWest’s newspapers responded by injecting buzz words like “Quebecistan” and “Hezbocrats” into Canada’s public debate.
While this kind of divisive rhetoric is common in the United States and is even encouraged as a way to energize the political base, it marked an escalation of political stridency for Canada.
Some of the fury subsided after a ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel in late summer. But the larger question remained whether Harper would succeed in transforming Canada into a more belligerent and bellicose nation, much as Bush had done in the United States.
For generations, Canada has prided itself on its well-liked image around the world. It is a nation renowned for sending peacekeepers abroad not occupying armies.
There was also the possibility that having seen the consequences of right-wing governance in the United States, Canadians would recoil at the thought of losing their pleasant country with its national health insurance and fairly comfortable lifestyle, in favor of the more cut-throat economic system south of the border.
Some analysts suspected, too, that the Bush connection would ultimately hurt Harper. With Canadian troops dying in Afghanistan and violence rising in the Middle East, Harper’s coziness with Bush had the risk of becoming a liability as it was for Tony Blair.
Now, with the Republican congressional defeat in the United States, Harper’s political movement also has lost the glow of inevitability, one of the chief organizing principles for the planned right-wing dominance across North America.
Instead, Canada appears to be turning against right-wing extremism, much as Americans did, in favor of more pragmatic politics.
The new Liberal leader Dion has a doctorate in public administration and has taught at the university level. He also served in the cabinet of two previous governments, holding a portfolio as environmental minister.
A native of Quebec City, Dion briefly associated with the Quebec sovereignty movement as a student but shifted to the more mainstream liberal venue early in his political career.
In seeking his party’s leadership, the 51-year-old Dion chided Harper for being too cozy with Bush, especially on policies in the Middle East.
“I don’t want Afghanistan to become an Iraq,” Dion told a CBC interviewer. “And, if we do what Harper is doing, to be the macho, to say ‘it’s me and we will do it’, copying the language and style of the President of the United States. We have a Prime Minister who thinks that the United States is not only an ally for us but a model, and not only for foreign affairs, but also domestically.”
Dion has made clear that he intends to hammer away at the similarities between Harper and Bush. In an interview with MacLean’s magazine, Dion said Harper had reprised so many of Bush’s speeches that the U.S. President “may request royalties.”
Harper’s use of U.S. political consultants and his alliance with American evangelical groups also have rubbed many Canadians the wrong way.
Much as Bush’s picture next to Republican candidates became a staple of Democratic campaign ads in 2006, Canada’s Liberals appear certain to pair up Bush and Harper during the looming campaign for control of Parliament.
As Republicans were hurt by the impression they were Bush’s rubber stamps, Harper may have to overcome his earlier decision to mimic the strategy and tactics of the American Right.
If the Nov. 7 election results in the United States and opinion polls in Canada mean anything, it may be that Bush’s tough-guy swagger has lost much of its appeal in the United States and may be in even greater disrepute in Canada.
“The conservative wave across Canada has crested,” declared Liberal Party spokesman Tait Simpson.
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