IT WORKED FOR RICHARD NIXON
To understand Stephen Harper’s bold new game plan, look to a cunning former U.S. president
Twice before, Stephen Harper overhauled the team around him as he prepared to meet a new challenge. In November 2001, as a candidate for the Canadian Alliance leadership, he fired the high-priced professional
campaigners he had put on the payroll only three months earlier and turned the campaign over to his inexperienced but highly motivated friends. In July of 2005, as an Opposition leader who had failed to bring down Paul Martin’s minority government, he replaced his chief of staff and fired much of his organization. The first overhaul, according to the Harper camp’s household mythology, made him a party leader. The second made him prime minister.
And now he is doing it again.
Staffers at the Prime Minister’s Office were on tenterhooks for weeks before Guy Giorno took over as Stephen Harper’s second chief of staff, replacing the man Harper installed in 2005, Ian Brodie, who resigned but still helped plan the latest reorganization. From his first day on the job, on July 2, Giorno wasted no time cleaning house.
The PMO had three deputy chiefs of staff; two had cleared out their desks before the weekend; Keith Beardsley at “issues management” and Roseanna Whissell at “operations.” Subordinates followed both out the exit. Ministerial staffers across the capital have been told to expect more firings. So-called directors of parliamentary affairs, who help steer their bosses’ agendas through the Commons and Senate, have been told “the centre”—Giorno, acting on detailed advice Brodie left him—has confidence in only one-third of them.
Harper and Giorno have embarked on a major housecleaning designed to give the Conservatives new focus and flexibility as a federal election approaches. It will be the first election Harper has had to fight as an incumbent prime minister. He never thought his tenuous minority government would last this long. But since Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has been gracious enough to grant Harper a summer’s respite from an election, Harper does not intend to waste it.
Sources say that at his first meeting with PMO staff, Giorno, a Toronto lawyer who served as chief of staff to former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris, sat through a brief introduction from Harper before telling staff that when the Commons reconvenes at the end of September, Canada will be at most a year away from a general election. Now, Giorno said, the government will be in permanent pre-election mode until the Liberals and other opposition parties bring them down, or until Harper himself reaches the fall 2009 fixed-election date he set in law in 2006.
What will the new focus look like? “Leaner, less bureaucratic, less focus on day-to-day management of government,” one senior Conservative said. “We’ve got a professional public service to take care of that stuff. Guy
said, ‘Let’s all remember that we are political staffers; we are not administrators.’ ” Giorno’s title is chief of staff to the Prime Minister, but “he will interpret that as being chief of staff to the Conservative Party of Canada.”
As if to emphasize that change, Harper’s new PMO has a new spokesman: Kory Teneycke, a former ethanol-industry lobbyist who has worked in Preston Manning’s old Reform party, in Harris’s Ontario government while Giorno was there, and for the Saskatchewan Party before it ousted the province’s long-standing NDP government. But Teneycke’s most recent and significant assignment was running the Conservative Resource Group. That 37-member shop, separate from both the PMO and Conservative party headquarters, runs almost constant Internet attacks against the Dion Liberals. Teneycke helped mastermind an elaborate campaign to discredit Dion’s most important proposal, the so-called “Green Shift,” which would combine a carbon tax with income-tax cuts.
Teneycke replaces Sandra Buckler, whose secretive style and awesome control—every on-the-record public statement by every cabinet minister, Conservative MP and every diplomat in Canada’s foreign service had to be cleared by her in advance—made her the bane of Ottawa reporters’ existence. Teneycke has a tricky dual assignment. He hopes to smooth the press gallery’s ruffled feathers, even as he helps ramp up the PMO’s election readiness.
To accomplish the first goal,
Teneycke plans to loosen the PMO’s legendary control over communications. Ministerial spokesmen handling calls from reporters will be free—well, freer—to decide how to respond, even if only with a prompt, cheerful “no comment.” (Two years under Buckler have ill-prepared many ministers’ helpers for this dizzying level of autonomy. Many will be replaced before the new rules come into effect.)
When they do comment, Conservative staffers will more often add a partisan spin, and ministers will put everything they do into the context of the coming confrontation with the Dion Liberals. The sweet spot Giorno and Teneycke are aiming at: a less belligerent but even more partisan Conservative government.
The immediate goal is to win an election. The longer-term goal is to settle Harper in for a durable transformation of Canadian politics. Some of his oldest friends talk about a Harper era that would last a decade; confirm the heal-
ing of Canada’s legendarily factious conservative movement; encourage division within the Liberal party and between Liberals and other opposition parties; and durably transform the country’s political culture.
Getting from here to there, of course, will be tricky. There are no guarantees. But Harper knows that for every voter who is implacably opposed to his continued tenure at 24 Sussex Drive, there is another voter who thinks he’s been a fine Prime Minister so far. That coalition hasn’t grown much since 2006, but what’s less often noticed is that it hasn’t shrunk either—it’s turning out to be durable. For our purposes today it is better to understand the Harper coalition, not as a matter of geography (Quebec nationalists, Western reformers) but of demographics. Harper appeals, and plans to keep appealing, to middle-class and working-class employees, tradesmen, parents of small children, entrepreneurs, and military families and their supporters. People who believe they pay more to Ottawa than they are used to getting from it, whether in
money, programs or respect. Harper and a few lieutenants—his strategic chief Patrick Muttart, his underappreciated junior minister Jason Kenney—have been thinking about and planning how to cement that coalition still further, and encourage its judicious growth at the margin.
THEIR FIRST non-trivial challenge is that looming election.
Conservative party organizers are not pleased with the constant stream of press speculation about Harper’s dream of winning a majority. They say no party can hope to win a majority at the next election, and maybe not any time soon after that.
Four parties, the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois, can each expect to win at least 35 seats at the next election, one strategist said. That takes a lot of seats out of
play, and to hold a majority of the 308 seats, one party would need two-thirds of what’s left over. The Conservatives don’t expect to do that, partly because they don’t expect to make huge gains in Quebec. Pick up another 20 or 30 of the province’s 75 seats? No way. But if the Conservatives can go from 11 to 25 seats, thanks to soft support for the Bloc and the Liberals, they will count it a good day at the races.
So the Conservatives are budgeting for gains, not planning for a majority—and would not be surprised if the next election leaves the Commons looking much as it does today. What if it’s a wash? That, too, plays to Harper’s advantage, because the two largest parties have built up very different expectations over the past decade.
Liberals expect to win majorities. They kicked out Jean Chrétien because they had a hunch he might finally be reduced to a minority if he led the party into a fourth election. When Paul Martin finally lost for them, they expected a tidy 18 months in the penalty box, and then back into the good jobs.
SPOKESMEN WILL BE FREE-WELL, FREER— TO DECIDE HOW TO RESPOND, A DIZZYING LEVEL OF AUTONOMY
Many are already displeased that Stéphane Dion has proven a shaky steward, and they will not be likely to let him survive as leader if Harper is re-elected.
Few Liberals have thought much about what follows. Dion’s resignation would plunge the party into another year-long leadership contest, with a strengthened Michael Ignatieff facing a strengthened Bob Rae while a third faction backs some young “candidate of change.” The new leader would have to spend months binding up the party’s wounds. Even with a minority, the Conservatives would have a year and a half of open ice before they even have to begin worrying about another election.
But could Harper survive another failure to win a majority? Oh, probably. It’s now 20 years since a Conservative leader won a majority. The interim has been humiliating for all concerned. There isn’t a Conservative MP elected before 2004 who doesn’t remember internal feuds, funereal caucus meetings, days when poll scores in the mid-teens felt like a breakthrough. Pundits are glib about those days, but Conservatives feel them in their bones. If Harper keeps his party in power by the slimmest of margins, they will not be inclined to punish him.
Meanwhile Harper sets about building his coalition. Like his young chief strategist, Patrick Muttart, he is a keen student of earlier examples, at home and in other countries. And anyone interested in understanding what Harper is trying to accomplish could do worse than to pack some hefty vacation reading this summer: an extraordinary new book by a young American historian, Rick Perlstein, called Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
Perlstein is no fan of Republicans, but he works diligently to understand what they do and why they win. The aim of his second book is to explain how the United States went from a historic Democrat landslide in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won re-election, to a historic Republic landslide in 1972, when Nixon did. Perlstein’s main character “is not Richard Nixon,” he writes. “It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
Nixonland, then, is a case study in coalition-building. It is about the art of identifying and wooing the mythic prey of all political strategists, the “gettable voter,” who didn’t vote for you last time but might the next. But Nixon was also a master at deepening the allegiance of his voter base—at making Conserva-
tives proud and happy to have him around by identifying strongly with their preoccupations. In preparing for Harper’s 2006 victory, Muttart studied Nixon’s example closely. Both in the way he broadened his coalition and the way he sunk the allegiance of his base, Harper drew heavily on Nixon’s example.
Perlstein writes that even as an undergrad at Whittier College, Nixon defined his coalition as the excluded and snubbed. The student leaders were all in a club called “the Franklins”—“well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly.” Nixon formed a club from everyone left out, the Orthogonians, “the strivers, those not to the manner
born.” Being disliked by the swells was a badge of honour, and when Nixon beat a Franklin for student body president, he showed that “being hated by the right people was no impediment to political success.” The rest of Nixon’s career was a series of appeals to Orthogonian tastes.
One of Perlstein’s great insights, and it’s directly comparable to Canada today, is that Nixon rose to prominence in a country where economic growth had created a new consumer class whose wealth was not inherited and whose tastes perhaps not the most refined. But the left found the new middle class repulsive: “The liberals whose New Deal created this mass middle class were more and more turning their attention to critiquing the degraded mass culture of cheap sensation and plastic gadgets and politicians who seemed to cater to this lowest common denominator.” To one group, Perlstein writes, “congratulating yourself for seeing through Richard Nixon and the elaborate political poker bluffs with which he hooked the sentimental rubes, was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.” But there was another group, the one Nixon would eventually call his Silent Majority, for whom “admiring Richard Nixon was becoming part and parcel of a political identity based on seeing through the pretensions of the cosmopolitan liberals who claimed to know so much better than you (and Richard Nixon) what was best for your country.” Early on, Nixon designates the press as his “enemy of first resort,” Perlstein writes. His early coverage is balanced, even laudatory, but he is “the sort to spy betrayal even in the midst of affection.” The newsrooms were full of Franklins from fancy families and snooty schools; Nixon would shut them out, control them, brood over their coverage. At one point Nixon stages a transparently bogus town-hall meeting. Perlstein’s account will be familiar to any reporter who has tried to cover Harper: “The reporters threatened mutiny. Ailes [Roger Ailes, Nixon’s communications guru who today runs Fox News] offered them a compromise: from now on they’d be allowed to watch on monitors in a room nearby and interview the audience after the show. If they didn’t like it, tough. A man who raged at what he could not control, Richard Nixon had found a way to be in control.”
The blueprint for the Nixon presidency is a memo by a young Republican staffer, Kevin Phillips, “Middle America and the Emerging Republican Majority.” Not only can a conservative rise be fuelled by resentment, Phillips writes, the earlier liberal rise was too. The New Deal coalition “rose by directing people’s resentment of economic elites,” Perlstein writes in paraphrasing Phillips’s argument. Again, the Canadian parallel is neat: remem-
SNUBBING MIDDLE CANADA, HARPERLAND, IF YOU LIKE, ISA MISTAKE THE PM WILL NEVER MAKE
ber Jean Chrétien in a denim shirt, promising to get working-class Canada back to work. But in America in the 1960s as in Canada today, for a significant chunk of the electorate “the new hated elite... was cultural—the ‘toryhood of change,’ condescending and self-serving liberals ‘who make their money out of plans, ideas, communications, social upheaval, happenings, excitement,’ at the psychic expense of‘the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii.’ ”
If the press is your enemy and the “Lawrence Welkish mass” is your base, certain odd tactics make more sense. Lying, for instance. Or at least being very loose with the truth, even when you know you’ll be caught. Because who’s catching you? The Franklins is who. “Let them pounce on your ‘mistake,’ ” Perlstein writes, “then garner pity as you wriggle free by making the enemy look unduly aggressive. Then you inspire a strange sort of protective love among voters whose wounds of resentment grow alongside your performance of being wounded. Your enemies appear to die of their own hand, never of your own. Which makes you stronger.”
Which brings us to Pierre Poilievre. He is a young Conservative MP from a riding just outside Ottawa. He had to apologize in the Commons after he wondered while a talk-
radio audience listened, on the day Harper was delivering a solemn apology for decades of abuse in aboriginal residential schools, whether Canada had received “value for money” in its treatment of First Nations.
Poilievre is dismissed as a third-rater by most reporters in the gallery, and even among Tory staffers he is seen as a guy whose mouth gets ahead of his ambition. But he gets this distinction between the well-rounded and the Welkish mass in his bones. His website
address is www.fightingforyou.ca, and here’s the odd thing about the residential-schools blunder: even if it was a mistake, and his apology sincere, his riding office has received far more critical calls and emails from voters for his apology than it has for his original gaffe.
Canada today is blessed beyond the imagining of America in the 1960s, with its urban riots and its racial and social strife, but the Harper team is acutely sensitive to anything that might sound like a culture war. That’s why, when a CBC reporter fed questions to a Liberal MP interrogating Brian Mulroney at a committee hearing, Conservative campaign manager Doug Finley fired off a fundraising letter to Conservative supporters, arguing that the swells were conspiring against them and it was time to give. It was the party’s most successful fundraising drive to date.
Stephen Harper knows what happens when a Conservative leader in Canada takes his base for granted. Harper walked away from the Progressive Conservatives in 1987 because he thought Brian Mulroney was snubbing the Welkish mass. He will never make the same mistake. He retools now and then, sometimes spectacularly, as he is doing this summer with Giorno. But his eye is always on Middle Canada—on Harperland, if you like, and even if you don’t. M