Since Stephen Harper became leader of the Conservative party in March, 2004, one common knock against him is that he has insufficient “charisma” to become prime minister. Yet that term is never defined: It is taken for granted that charisma is an inborn characteristic one either possesses or does not.
But as recent examples from the United States, Australia, and Britain show, charisma is a quality that comes in more than one form. Stephen Harper, take note: Those who don’t come by it naturally can earn it through decisive, principled action in public life.
Last week, as Canada’s election campaign was heating up, Britain’s Tories elected a new leader. Suffice it to say that David Cameron does not have Harper’s image problem. Cameron essentially ran as the Candidate of Niceness–not implausibly, since the 39-year-old is a very charming and personable young man. He has refused to explain his views in any detail, claiming that four years before the next election was too soon to outline his policies on taxation and spending.
A large part of the calculation underlying Cameron’s victory is that the policies he adopts are somehow secondary: The sheer force of his charisma will transmit itself to the Tory party and whatever platform it adopts.
In some ways, this is what George W. Bush did five years ago. Though the U.S. President has little charisma for most Canadians and Europeans, he has a great deal for most Americans, and a cornucopia of it for U.S. conservatives. It is not too much to say that those who elected him love the man and his “cowboy” charisma. They voted for him rather than his policies in 2000 (when they didn’t really focus on what those policies were) and again in 2004 (when in the main they actively disliked them.)
Bush is hardly the fierce Texas reactionary portrayed in the Canadian media. In most areas of domestic policy, in fact, he has been the most liberal president since LBJ. Domestic discretionary spending under Bush has risen at a higher rate than any time since the Great Society. Bush passed, in alliance with Teddy Kennedy, a big-spending education reform bill. He is currently proposing legislation to open U.S. borders to any immigrant who can find a “willing” employer–and to amnesty the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. And far from cutting back on social “entitlements,” he brought in a vast new one–a drug prescription entitlement–that has overrun its estimated costs by about 40 percent after just one year.
What have American conservatives got to show for their support? There is the Iraq war, of course, but that was not a particularly conservative cause. Regime change in Iraq had been a policy of Bill Clinton. And the invasion had overwhelming support, including from Democrats, when it was launched. Tax cuts are the one really bold conservative policy Bush adopted–but they will likely be reversed sooner or later in order to pay for his budgetary profligacy.
It is hardly surprising that Bush’s popularity has been dropping sharply in the last year. Analysis of opinion polls shows that Bush’s fall is caused more by right-wing disillusionment than left-wing anger. His charisma may have initially obscured policies that his supporters disliked; but over time, the disappointing results of those policies have seriously eroded that charisma.
That disease is far from terminal. Bush still has time to recover. His tax cuts–whether significantly or not, the one conservative item on his agenda–are helping him to recover in the polls by boosting the economy. But he and the GOP have dug themselves into a hole by adopting policies that disappointed and alienated their natural supporters without winning over their opponents (always a difficult and underestimated task in politics.)
Turn now to a very different example: Australia, where no one would think to ask, as the National Post recently did of Canada, “Is conservatism dead?” As Peter Shawn Taylor noted on this page last week, Conservative parties there have won the last four elections and implemented a bold program of conservative reforms.
Yet a decade ago, Prime Minister John Howard was seen as possessing negative charisma. His image was that of the chartered accountant in Monty Python, and he was widely known as “Little John.” But he also possessed persistence–and a clear set of conservative policies. These policies were not always popular. The Labor party and the media depicted them as extreme. But Howard argued the case for them courageously and reasonably. And he delivered the goods.
Today, Howard can be said to possess a positive charisma–not the glamorous inborn charisma of a Trudeau, a JFK or a 2002-era Bush, but an earned charisma of achievement. Margaret Thatcher achieved something very similar. Neither she nor Howard were ever popular in the Cameronian way. They were, and are, respected for the successful policies they adopted, for the courage they displayed, and for they patient way they argued the often difficult case for often unpopular reform.
Where, then, does this leave the two new champions of conservatism–Cameron and Harper?
In Cameron’s case, not only the Tory faithful but even the media have been in a swooning mood. Words such as “youth,” “hope” and “change” were flung about like confetti in the articles describing his victory in the Conservative leadership race.
Among the younger political reporters in particular, there was a lip-smacking anticipation of a battle of styles between the youthful, inexperienced and charismatic Cameron and the older, battle-hardened, and dour Gordon Brown, the Finance Minister who is universally expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister, perhaps as early as next year.
What policies will Cameron adopt? And will they entrench or weaken his undoubted charisma? It is impossible to say precisely. But several clues present themselves.
First, Cameron was a member of the small inside team that ran a 2004 Tory election campaign that was widely damned for its timidity–especially over taxation and public spending. Not a good sign.
Cameron warmly praises Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” He also supports Bush, with qualifications, over Iraq. But he seems less in tune with Bush’s bold tax cuts. And he has yet to notice that the president’s compassionate conservatism has produced the kind of overspending for which the Tories now routinely denounce Gordon Brown. Not a better sign.
Finally, Cameron was briefly a p.r. man for a television company–his only “real job” outside politics–and he is distinctly media-savvy. He offered himself to the Tories as a new kind of “modernizing” leader, in tune with multicultural Britain and the younger generation. They bought it.
But if this superficial outreach effort has serious policy implications, it can only mean a cultural surrender by Cameron to the social prejudices of the media and London’s chattering classes, at the very time when ordinary voters–and especially conservative voters–are worried about such threats as the London bombings, crime and hooliganism. Cameron would be saying that he will not challenge multiculturalism, uncontrolled immigration, laxness on crime, or the welfare policies that facilitate family breakup. That would win more headlines than votes.
As with other politicians who rely primarily on their superficial charms, Cameron’s current popularity is therefore a sort of bubble. He is popular for being popular. It is possible he might also be solid, brave, decent, politically shrewd, and even conservative. Or not. We just don’t know. But the smart bet is that he will be pursuing the primrose path trodden by Bush–and likely with similar results.
Stephen Harper is more in the position of Howard than of either Bush or Cameron. Despite the fact he’s out-campaigned Paul Martin during the last two weeks, the impression lingers that he is a man of negative charisma. That is unfair, since those who have met the private Harper know he is charming, intelligent, lively and even funny. But it is a political fact nonetheless.
Harper has no alternative, then, but to follow the same path as Howard. He must advance a bold set of conservative policies that hang together logically and address the Canadian electorate’s real concerns. His child-care proposal is a good example that he might fruitfully adopt to deal with a range of other problems and voter concerns. It is not cheap but, by giving money and power to parents rather than to producer groups loyal to the Liberals, it is far more likely to actually improve the lives of the supposed ultimate beneficiaries, namely the children themselves.
But bold policies, as Howard and Thatcher demonstrated, need to be supported by patient and reasonable argument. This is an important element in earned charisma. As Andrew Coyne pointed out on this page, when voters say they want moderation, “the moderation they’re looking for is one of temperament. They’re judging the messenger as much as the message; if they trust the one, they’ll sign onto the other.”
Reasonably advocating bold but sensible policies, however, is no more than the first step toward the earned charisma that is apparently the only kind of charisma to which Harper can aspire. It is not a state he can fully achieve until he reaches 24 Sussex Drive. But unless he keeps at it during the campaign, he won’t reach even that intermediate stage–and we will not know if he is a Canadian John Howard; nor whether Canadian conservatism is dead, or merely suffering from hypochondria.
–John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, an editor at large of National Review, a regular contributor to the National Post. He can be contacted through Benador Associates. This first appeared in the National Post and is reprinted with permission.