Being there

Harper has no plan – Coyne

Harper has a plan – Wells

And what is more — they’re both right!

How’s that again? Read the choicer cuts from Wells’s incisive piece. The plan is to have no plan:

From day to day the Prime Minister can be so full of surprises, so confounding to his opponents and even to some of his supporters, that it almost always helps to take the long view when trying to figure him out…

There is a constant tension in his politics between a short-term impulse to hug the centre and a long-term determination to move it — to transform Canadian society. Harper captures that tension when he calls himself a realist. It’s the label a man gives himself when he is willing to take many detours on his way to his destination. When he is so intent on his long-term goal that he will not let mere principle get in the way of reaching that goal…

All the evidence of his 31 months in power suggests the changes Harper has in store for the basic architecture of Canadian federalism are profound. And all the evidence of the campaign suggests he is just about ready to twist himself into logical and moral pretzels on the way….

To hug the centre, he will indulge in the most blatant contradictions and occasional incoherence. To keep the Liberals out, he will frequently play with his elbows way up….

Taken together, these actions give the image, not so much of a strategic genius as of a man who will throw anything and anyone overboard if it threatens his ability to hang onto power. For Harper this must be entirely justifiable. His plan for change is written across a generation. It is nothing like what Brian Mulroney did, two tumultuous mandates that left the party broken and radioactive for a decade. Harper needs longevity. It is starting to look like he will do anything to get it.

So he has a vision of where he wants to take the country in the long run. And to get to that destination he will as often as not move in precisely the opposite direction. Is this as nonsensical as it sounds? Can you add up an endless series of backflips into a great leap forward? Is long-term vision no more than compounded short-term expediency? Is the road to that horizon a load of compromisin’?

Maybe. Here’s what I think is going on in Harper’s brain. Most voters, he has reasoned, are not ideological or even political. They barely pay attention, even when there’s an election on. You can’t reason with them, can’t persuade them, can’t change their minds. All you can do is win.

The closest thing to a political philosophy in most voters’ minds is whatever they are familiar with. That is, other things being equal, they tend to prefer the status quo, whatever it is, to the unknown. This confers a huge advantage on incumbency. It’s why conservative radicals like Milton Friedman used to rail against the “tyranny of the status quo.” Once a system, ideology or institution is entrenched, however moribund and corrupt, it’s all but impossible to shift it.

Harper isn’t interested in persuading the public to come round to his point of view, or in behaving in a principled or ideologically consistent fashion. All he wants to do is win. (The Coyne thesis.) How does he reconcile that with his long-run ideological ambition (the Wells version)? Because as long as he goes on winning, by whatever means, he becomes the status quo. So whatever he does imprints itself upon the public’s reptilian brain as the natural order of things. He doesn’t win by persuading. He persuades people by winning.

As long as on balance he’s making progress — even if it’s two steps forward, one step back — then he achieves his goal. Not by convincing the public it’s the right thing to do. Not by changing minds. Just by being there.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.