Skip to main content

The right way for conservatives to win

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 28, 2013
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, here with President Obama in 2011, has achieved remarkable things, David Frum says.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, here with President Obama in 2011, has achieved remarkable things, David Frum says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Stephen Harper shows path U.S. conservatives should follow
  • He says Canadian prime minister avoids "Braveheart" speeches, bold policy shifts
  • Canada has emerged strongly from world economic crisis, Frum writes
  • Frum: By contrast, U.S. conservatives have appalled and frightened Americans

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- U.S. conservatives deeply admire Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In a March story, National Review hailed Harper as the new "leader of the West" -- and they didn't mean Western Canada. The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard have added their own praise.

Well they might. Harper has achieved more from a weaker position than any conservative leader of recent times.

A decade ago, Canada's Conservatives were split between two antagonistic parties. Harper won the leadership of one of those parties, then negotiated a merger, with himself as leader of the united right. He then had to fight a rapid series of elections: In 2004 he reduced the once-dominant Liberals to minority status. In 2006, he won just barely enough seats to form a minority government himself. He won a stronger minority in 2008, but only in 2011 did he at last gain the secure majority he'd sought for a decade.

Under desperately precarious political circumstances -- and in the face of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s -- Harper achieved remarkable things.

David Frum
David Frum

Almost 1 million more Canadians are working today than before the financial crisis -- the best employment record in the Group of 7.

Incomes have recovered and surpassed pre-recession peaks.

Canada's national debt burden is lower than that of any other major economy -- and less than half that of the United States. Corporate tax rates are lower in Canada than in the United States, and on the present trajectory the same may soon be true of personal income taxes as well.

How did Harper and his Conservatives do it?

Not the way that American conservatives are trying to do it. American conservatives have followed a radical path to repeated defeat. Canadian conservatives have followed an incremental path to accumulating success.

American conservatives have followed a radical path to repeated defeat. (Canadians) have followed an incremental path to accumulating success.
David Frum

Americans then might benefit as much as Canadians from reading "The Longer I'm Prime Minister," a lively new book about the secrets of Harper's survival and success, written by one of Canada's leading political columnists, Paul Wells of Maclean's magazine. The title plays off a joke Harper frequently tells on himself: "The longer I'm prime minister" -- pause for dramatic effect -- "the longer I'm prime minister."

It's a joke based on a grim political reality: Twenty-one men and one woman have served as prime minister of Canada. Six of them have lasted less than a year. Three more lasted less than three years. On the other hand, five prime ministers served more than 10 years. If the 54-year-old Harper completes his current term, he will have served for nine years. One more win after that, and he will have joined the champions.

"My models aren't Conservative prime ministers," Wells quotes Harper. "My models are successful prime ministers."

Wells is not especially sympathetic to Harper's politics or purposes. But he has invested the close attention necessary to understand them. As Wells explains, Harper's first priority is to last. As Harper himself said in a 2004 speech that outlined his political program before a friendly audience, incremental gains are "inevitably" the only real ones. Revolutionary projects almost always fail.

"The surest rebuttal Harper can offer to a half-century of Liberal hegemony," Wells points out, "is not to race around doing things the next Liberal could undo." The better rebuttal, instead, is to build a counter-hegemony of one's own. What could be more foolish than futile provocative actions that serve only to consolidate the other guy's advantages? American conservatives enamored of their bold programs may disdain Harper's caution. Think again.

"Because he is temperamentally the most conservative Canadian prime minister of his lifetime, he will not ever run out of ideas for conservative things to do. So on any day he has a choice, he can do the big conservative thing that would be the end of his career, or he can do some of the small conservative things that won't. He is amazed that earlier leaders had a hard time choosing."

As Wells points out, however, a politician can accomplish a lot by the simple act of refraining from committing career suicide.

"How many decisions does a prime minister make in a day? Sixty? A hundred? Almost none go reported. He doesn't even have to keep most of them secret: the rush of events ensures they won't be noticed and assayed by the (press) gallery. As the 2011 election approached, Harper was approaching two thousand days in office. Imagine how different the outcome would have been if a different prime minister, with different assumptions, prejudices, and instincts had made those thousands of decisions."

Many U.S. Republicans argue that elections are won by boldly standing on principle. Sen. Ted Cruz articulated just that idea in his speech Friday to Iowa's Ronald Reagan Dinner. He lauded the House Republicans who nearly pushed the nation into bankruptcy as "a profile in courage who stood strong and listened to the American people." In fact, of course, those House Republicans appalled and frightened the American people -- and badly damaged themselves in the process.

After the worst miscalculation of his own career -- a failed maneuver that nearly brought down his government in 2008 -- Harper explained the lesson he'd learned: Never surprise the voters. Do not outpace the consent they have granted. Lead from the front -- but never from very far in front.

As for those bold "Braveheart" speeches so cherished by conservatives these days ... they are to be avoided at all costs. Wells observes the Harper speechmaking operation close up: "He works at removing memorable turns of phrase and identifiable ideas from his speeches. He puts great effort into flattening his prose." Why? "All that stuff that sounds good in speeches -- 'We must,' 'I will never,' 'Mark my words' -- all that becomes a line in the sand. It gets held against you later. So that stuff's coming out."

I know Harper a little, and I can attest: It requires immense self-control to keep this relentlessly interesting intellect sounding dull. But politics is not a business for the self-indulgent. "Observers looking for something to dislike get less fodder than they would if he were a loudmouth."

As I write, the Harper government is facing a moment of controversy. Harper appointees to the unelected upper chamber of the Canadian Parliament are accused of cheating on their expenses, and the opposition parties are making a familiar uproar over the familiar questions of what did the prime minister know and when did he know it. It's all very exciting, and likely all very fleeting. What is lasting is governance. American conservatives should rediscover it -- and Wells' entertaining and insightful study of North America's most governance-minded conservative offers an excellent place to start.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT