June 12, 2015

Spending like a Liberal: The triangulation of Stephen Harper

MJ SheppardRebel Blogger

Triangulation is a fairly recent political creation, pioneered by Bill Clinton and his strategist, Dick Morris, when the former was governor of Arkansas and then brilliantly executed during the 1992 presidential campaign. Tony Blair employed it to return his Labour Party to power for over a decade. Indeed, even George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a variant of it before the War on Terror upended his agenda. 

Essentially, what triangulation involves is the commandeering of your opponent's strongest issues and making them your own. In Clinton's case, it was crime. In Bush's, education. Triangulation, when done properly, fundamentally changes the perception  of the voters toward your party. From 1992 onward, the Democrats were no longer seen as the party of "abortion, acid and amnesty." Labour had transformed from a pack of wild-eyed socialists to the United Kingdom's only real governing choice for 13 years. 

Stephen Harper has done a masterful job of triangulation since taking office nine years ago. Much has been made by the Left and the media that the Harper Conservatives have moved Canada further to the right than it's ever been, but that is a largely false perception, based almost entirely on his rhetoric. 

Beginning in 2005, Harper moved away from previously held principles on issues as diverse as the second war in Iraq, income trusts, Canada's troop presence in Afghanistan, refusing to name unelected members to the Senate and, most recently, a voluntary expansion of Canada Pension Plan contributions. His rhetoric has remained rock-ribbed "conservative" while his actions were decidedly centrist or slightly to the left. 

Nowhere is that more clear than in the budget priorities of the Conservatives. There they have taken the playbook of figures like Clinton and made it their own. That couldn't be more obvious than this interview with Macleans by Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre. 

The interview crystallizes just how much philosophical ground the Harper government has ceded to the Liberals and the NDP. 

1) They have formalized that the federal government does indeed have a role in raising families. "Small c" fiscal conservatives have historically blanched at this position because a government big enough to "help families" is also large enough to do any number of untoward things. It should never be forgotten that with the ability to bestow benefits comes the power to regulate. 

2) Traditional conservatives have long believed that that the tax code exists to raise revenue with which to operate the government and that tax cuts are a primary engine for economic stimulus. This is why conservatives have traditionally favoured rate cuts over targeted ones since they provide the greatest stimulus.   Instead, the tax code has become a cauldron of very expensive micro-targeting that punishes or rewards based on lifestyle choices. 

3) It overlooks the historical reality that getting into a contest with the left over who can give away the most money rarely ends well for the economy, or conservatives. 

The dominant theory that I've heard regarding Harper's spending, most famously from Paul Wells of Macleans, is that by weaving all of these new, politically impossible to remove entitlements into the tax code, he limits the ability of future Liberal or NDP governments to create new entitlement or program spending. 

Of course, this is nonsense. President Bush spent all kinds of money on all kinds of thing, effectively, in Jean Chretien's words, "leaving the cupboard bare." I've noticed over the last six and half years that this hasn't inhibited President Obama's spending one iota. The Harper Conservatives don't seem to understand one important fact: that it isn't how much cash on hand that's important; it's the ability to borrow. 

Sadly, by the time that realization dawns on them, it'll be too late, since the Conservatives have made new entitlements and manipulation of the tax code such a central part of their governing philosophy. 


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commented 2015-06-15 16:07:04 -0400
I agree. We have 5 parties on the left. The CPC just holds positions just to the left of center. They do a lot of bluster as you suggested, but for example, despite their bluster, military spending increases have barely kept in step with social spending increases. And under Harper the debt increases that had slowed under Cretien actually sped up moving us from 500 billion to 600 billion in no time at all. The sad thing is they lost their window to enact something more conservative. A NDP-Liberal merger will come in time, and the only way to maintain a majority for the CPC will be to move further left. I will concede that, evidenced by the NDP win in Alberta, and other examples, those of us who truly believed that we could teach Canadians to be conservative, were horribly wrong. Canada is a leftist nation, and there is no saving them.
commented 2015-06-14 01:10:36 -0400
This article and the hair-splitting it addresses is just the thing I detest about modern politics. There is just barely enough difference between the major parties to allow me to make a choice. Were their platforms any more similar I could vote at random. Currently all three major parties are left of centre. The cons have move there from the right, NDP have been moving to the right and the libs are floundering in between and feeling the squeeze. Please guys stop trying to give me things and instead give me something more intangible like a choice.
commented 2015-06-13 05:47:20 -0400
MJ, give me a break. The Macleans interview of Pierre Poilievre by John Geddes doesn’t come anywhere close to supporting your claims. I’ll certainly admit that Harper and the federal Conservative Party’s policies and actions have shifted somewhat toward the centre, but stealing Clinton’s playbook? Really? You also seem to suggest that, if it were true, it’s not necessarily a good thing, which begs the question of where you see yourself on the political spectrum? I honestly can’t tell because you don’t appear to have much warmth for either the left or the right. Or do you just not like populist politics? Maybe, you were aiming for a satirical piece and it just fell short? In any case, I found your “review” of the Macleans interview and conclusions as to current Conservative Party philosophy absolutely hilarious.
For one thing, sweeping statements like “the Conservatives have made new entitlements and manipulation of the tax code such a central part of their governing philosophy” are so unfounded as to be downright ridiculous. If anything, Harper and the Conservatives likely would — if they could — eliminate most tax entitlements and accommodate the differences with a more simplified system of income and consumption tax legislation that lets Canadians keep more of their money in their own pockets and possibly working for them, instead of the government, all year-long.
Secondly, the Macleans writer, John Geddes, wasn’t being very objective in his questions. MJ, you ought to have noticed and commented on this, since it was glaringly obvious. Geddes’ questions about pension income-splitting provide a good example. If that’s not bad enough, Geddes tries to contradict Poilievre by asserting that the Liberals and NDP wouldn’t get rid of pension income-splitting because “pensioners are in a particular situation”, then later accuses the Conservatives of disproportionately benefiting “seniors” by — over time — doubling of the TFSA annual deposit allowances.
Finally, comparing Harper to Bush, and Canada’s government spending, taxation and social programs to those of the U.S. — especially over the past 7 or 8 years — is so illogical and meaningless that I nearly peed myself laughing as I read it. The nod to Obama’s spending spree was an especially nice touch, as since you mentioned borrowing, Obama has raised the U.S. debt ceiling 5 times already. Clinton did it 8 times, and although the U.S. was at war for most of George Bush’s administration, he only raised the debt ceiling 7 times. Soon after Harper first became PM with a Conservative Party minority in 2006, the 2007-08 financial crisis hit, followed by the ensuing “Great Depression” as it’s now referred to by Wikipedia. When I was a kid, the “Great Depression” meant the 1930s, but back then we still used a form of coin currency called “Pennies”, and “Pluto” was the 9th planet in the solar system.
Things change, and we have to respond and adapt to survive, and I doubt anyone can find a single, fact-based criticism of Harper’s stimulus-based response to the international economic crisis:
“No Canadian financial institutions failed. There were no government bailouts of insolvent firms (just a couple of lending programs to address market volatility relating to problems in the United States). Canada was the only G-7 country to avoid a financial crisis, and its recession was milder than those it experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. For the last six years, the World Economic Forum has ranked Canada first among more than 140 countries in banking stability.” – https://www.richmondfed.org/~/media/richmondfedorg/publications/research/econ_focus/2013/q4/pdf/feature2.pdf
Far from spewing nonsense, MJ, Paul Wells is absolutely correct that future governments are somewhat hemmed in by the acts of their predecessors, and by making some of the NDP and Liberal issues their own, the Conservatives are able to set and cultivate a certain system for responding to an issue. Once entrenched in the public’s mind, it’s very difficult and politically dangerous to try to change or impose a different system. It doesn’t take a political genius to understand and predict such basic human behaviour.
Seriously MJ, was your post intentionally comical, or was that just an accident?
commented 2015-06-12 13:49:24 -0400
Harper can promise anything he wants as long as he takes office again. Neither Justiekins nor angry Tommie are PM material.