Few could have predicted this — that a year after almost losing the government over his boneheaded budget update, Stephen Harper would be riding higher than ever.
A year ago, it looked that given his stumblings, given the oncoming recession, given the arrival of a new Liberal leader, this prime minister might be on his way out.
But here he is today with a big lead in the polls, a good showing in last week’s byelections, his Liberal opposition reeling. He is defining the agenda to suit his conservative values. He is even scoring some points — who could have imagined his Beatles’ song rendition? — in terms of personal appeal.
His conservative agenda — Stephen Harper’s Canada — was stamped out in the revamped citizenship guide his government issued last week. It was heavy on pride in the Armed Forces, law and order, the monarchy, limits to cultural tolerance. It was light on gay marriage, the environment, health care and socially progressive content. It was met with much applause.
It is remarkable Harper has been able to brand Canada to suit his purposes. The skill of the political leader lies in making the people feel good about what’s going on.
On the face of it, Canadians don’t have much to cheer about. They are not better off than they were four years ago. There’s the recession and Ottawa’s progress in fighting it is coming at a heavy cost — a huge looming deficit. There’s the war in Afghanistan, which is going badly. There’s the environment file on which the government’s performance has been laggard.
On content, the Conservatives lack big achievements. On style, they have been repeatedly criticized for their secrecy, heavy-handedness, one-man rule, all very much in contrast to its promise of a new era of transparency.
Their success is all the more surprising in that it bucks the trend to the south. In the United States, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin have tarnished the conservative brand. Barack Obama leads a liberal resurgence.
There’s no such trend resurgence here. Here, Harper’s conservatism is making Canadians feel good, or at least not dismayed, about what’s going on. He’s been lucky, helped along by the ineptitude of the Liberals. But in part, it’s been the prime minister’s craftiness that has made them appear that way.
Those of us who thought he would be on his way out by now were way off. He’s on his way in. He may just be getting started.
Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.