In January, there was a rumor that Stephen Harper would appear at CPAC. Harper is the prime minister of Canada, and a Conservative. CPAC is the annual conservative jamboree in Washington, D.C. As a source close to Harper says, it took the prime minister’s office “about 30 seconds” to deny that Harper would be speaking at CPAC. The organization had indeed invited Harper; but he had declined. It was only natural for the organization to invite him: Harper is maybe the leading conservative head of state or government right now. It was equally natural for Harper to decline. For one thing, a head of state or government probably has no business speaking at a partisan gathering on foreign soil. For another thing, Conservatives up north tend to be wary of associating with us conservatives down south. The Canadian media portray us as a bunch of yahoos and extremists. Of course, we are portrayed the same way here, but we have countervailing media: right-leaning media. The Canadians have precious few such outlets.
It is the kiss of death, or at least not an advantage, for a Canadian Conservative to be known as a “U.S.-style” conservative, a Canadian Republican. A leading Conservative says, “Our whole careers, we’ve had to defend ourselves against charges of being lackeys of the American Right.” He remembers the 2005–06 election period, during which “some well-meaning fellow” published an op-ed in the Washington Times, saying that Harper was a conservative in the American image, a Great Right Hope, and the best friend George W. Bush would ever have. “We had to distance ourselves from what he wrote,” says the leading Conservative. “It actually became a major story here, that obscure column in the Washington Times.” Oh, yes. Harper wrote a letter to the editor objecting to the column. In due course, his opponents made an attack ad out of the column, quoting it on the air.
For some months, National Review sought an interview with Harper. In the end, his office declined — politely, their being Canadian and all. Did he not want attention or praise from an American conservative magazine? Was he worried about the Washington Times treatment? Could be. But he grants very few interviews even to Canadian publications. David Frum, the Canadian-born author and analyst, has another point, and a related one: Harper is a very disciplined politician. And “when there is no reason to speak, there is a reason not to speak.”
It was not so long ago that American conservatives kind of snickered at Canada. They had terrific hockey, sure, but they also had Trudeaupian socialism, and a pinko foreign policy, and this pathetic national health-care system: Why, if a Canadian had a true medical problem, he had to run here. There is much less snickering now, as President Obama takes the U.S. in a more “Canadian” direction. For several years, I worked at golf courses in Michigan, and sometimes Canadians would try to use their pretty, multicolored money, to pay their greens fees. We would smile and shake our heads. “But don’t you accept our dollar at par?” they would say. No, not on your life: We barely considered Canadian money real money. Today, the Canadian dollar is worth more than the U.S. (by a hair). “This is a source of pride for us,” says a Canadian intellectual and politico, “but it’s also a mixed blessing: A stronger dollar hurts exports.” There is an expression in golf, and it applies to currency and its perpetual fluctuations: “Every shot pleases somebody.”
Conservatives, wherever they live, can be pleased with Stephen Harper. He is a leader of the West, an advocate of freedom, democracy, capitalism, human rights — Western civilization, we could say. There are not many conservatives in the highest offices at the moment. One thinks of Britain’s Cameron, Germany’s Merkel, Israel’s Netanyahu — India’s Singh? They all have their virtues, as do other leaders. But the example to our north is particularly interesting, not least because he is a surprise: a conservative flower that has bloomed in unpromising soil.
Harper was born in 1959, in Toronto, where he grew up. This is worth knowing because he is always thought of as a man of the Canadian West. That is certainly true in cultural and political terms. After high school, Harper moved to Alberta (the province above Montana, Idaho, and Washington). He is “very suspicious of establishment elites,” says a Conservative insider. We are talking about those “who wear cufflinks and pocket squares, and eat at restaurants with ‘Bistro’ in their names.” Harper attended the University of Calgary, where he earned two degrees: a bachelor’s and a master’s, both in economics. He liked watching National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., on television. He admired the big conservative statesmen on the world stage: Reagan and Thatcher. In a 2002 interview, he was asked to name thinkers who had influenced him. He said, “I’m an economist by training, so obviously all the classical economists from Smith right up to people like Hayek, as well as some of the modern public-choice theorists — people like James Buchanan.”