Canada's next election, the one the Prime Minister plans for fall, will ask Canadians a question Americans have already answered. The arch-conservatism that came late to Ottawa in January 2006 is in spiral decline here after dominating U.S. politics for much of the past 40 years.
No matter who wins the White House in November, the U.S. political pendulum has swung again, this time left. The irresistible force driving that swing isn't the rock star appeal of liberal Democrat Barack Obama, it's George W. Bush's failed presidency and the cumulative shortfalls of Republican policies.
America's dyspepsia runs deeper than Iraq and the spinoff horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and a startling Oval Office power grab. How citizens rate government, and what they now expect from Washington, also reflects the administration's lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina, laissez-faire regulation that turned the American home ownership dream into the subprime nightmare, and a social safety net cut open by tax windfalls for the rich.
Activist government – government willing and able to make a measurable difference – is back in vogue decades after its fall from grace helped elect Richard Nixon and the now iconic Republican president, Ronald Reagan. While Obama is the visible minority champion of a new liberalism, even a John McCain presidency would dilute that virulent Republican strain.
Of course, the Canadian ethos is different. North of the border Liberals, not Conservatives, are the default natural governing party and the election that brought Stephen Harper to power was an exercise in punishing entitlement, not the seismic shift in political plates Conservatives anticipated.
Conservative strategists, notably Tom Flanagan, recognize that dynamic. They know their party's base is more deep than broad and expansion is a task best tackled incrementally.
That's been Harper's work in progress for 32 months and results are instructive. His government is more militaristic than its predecessors. It embraces tax cuts as part of a formula that in edging the country closer to deficit neatly limits the federal government's capacity to act on issues it prefers left to provinces. It makes a big deal of fighting boogeyman crime with punishment, not rehabilitation, tilts toward belief over science and publicly positions itself as an establishment outsider while seizing the levers and rewards of power.
There's more to this government, positive and negative, than that checklist. Still, the template and the political tactics used to support it are reminiscent enough of Bush and Karl Rove to draw comparisons to the model Americans have now judged and found wanting.
Those comparisons pose an election challenge for the Prime Minister. In contrast to the energized message of hope and renewal Obama reinforced in Denver Thursday, a message that resonates with Canadians, Conservatives risk being seen as offering tired solutions tested and rejected elsewhere.
Fortunately for Harper, none of his opponents is an Obama. Even more fortuitously, there has been no Canadian full-Monty Bush to drag down conservative dogma and make it politically unpalatable.
Americans are now energized by their animosity to the president. That's bringing out new voters and infusing them with a purpose. In their mad-as-hell, won't take it anymore mood, voters here have answered the question a now seemingly certain federal election will ask Canadians.