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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