Obama's election victory won't hurt Harper

Would Stephen Harper have preferred a Mitt Romney victory? He'll never say. But it's safe to assume so.

Former Republican presidential candidate Romney is Harper's philosophical twin. Obama is the unruly cousin with whom he's forced to share a room on summer break. They're cordial, but ideology precludes them ever crooning Irish Eyes together, as Brian Mulroney famously did with Ronald Reagan.

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That said, Obama's re-election is not a setback for Harper, as some of his critics have assumed. In fact, the opposite is true.

Consider where Harper is now, as he faces his eighth year as prime minister: In all, he's not bad off.

Despite a steady onslaught from a determined, competent Tom Mulcair, despite Justin Trudeau's arrival in a shower of confetti and to the sound of golden trumpets, Harper has stubbornly clung to his traditionally high levels of support in the core economic files.

Indeed, a poll done in October by Nanos Research for CBC's Power & Politics had Harper ahead by a healthy margin on the bellwether question of "who do you trust most to negotiate trade agreements." Twenty-eight per cent said they trusted Harper most on trade - almost double the number who picked Trudeau, at 18 per cent. Only 12 per cent chose Mulcair.

History beats us about the head and neck with the truism that Canadians always in the end choose the party and leader they think will best manage the economy. So the opposition parties have a job of work ahead.

That said, there's trouble in paradise, from a Conservative point of view.

First, NDP leader Mulcair has proven stubbornly resistant to Conservative attempts to paint him as a wild-eyed Trotskyite, aching to pass laws mandating straw-bale houses and kelp diets. The phrase "competent, responsible public administrator" is never far from Mulcair's lips.

This is as finely calibrated as any slogan ever has been to resonate deep in the amygdala, the lizard brain, with which we choose our leaders.

As I have said before, Mulcair's Oct. 24 foray in the House of Commons on Bill C-45 was a master class in political rhetoric. Anyone who reads it will see he is avidly courting the centre - not the left and not even, particularly, the centre-left. He's after Harper's crown jewels. In this light, Mulcair's "Dutch Disease" thesis, pitting Ontario's limping manufacturing economy against Alberta's oilpatch, is the weird, discordant note. Don't be surprised to see him gently sidle away from it as the months pass.

And now there's Trudeau, also courting the "middle class," even more avidly than Mulcair.

The great risk to Harper is not that Trudeau promises to upend Conservative economic reforms; it's that he promises to uphold most of them, while offering himself as a more attractive character, with a more open, inclusive, engaging style of government.

My colleague John Ivison has reported a creeping malaise in Conservative ranks due to the lack of red meat in their diet - whether it be the prime minister's refusal to sanction a new debate on abortion or to trumpet deeper-than-promised spending cuts or to crow about the final deletion of the gun registry. But ideological red meat, given the assaults on the centre from Mulcair and Trudeau, is the very last thing Harper needs. He needs the opposite, as the U.S. election clearly shows.

Obama's re-election therefore provides him with just the lever he needs, within the Conservative base, to shoehorn them, kicking and screaming, even further toward the moderate middle: "See what happens if we're too extreme?"

The first signs of this were evident in the government's willingness to split the second omnibus budget bill and send the component parts out for examination by parliamentary committees.

Next will come a personal charm offensive by the prime minister himself, unless I miss my guess, involving a grand piano, a hockey book, a blue sweater or some combination of the three.

'Tis the season, after all.


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