Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s preferred political strategy is quiet (but firm) incrementalism. He is the Field Marshall Montgomery of politics. He never moves fast but he always moves forward.
This has been his approach to coaxing President Obama into approving the Keystone XL pipeline. By now, Obama’s stonewalling is apparent. Obama will not approve the pipeline unless he is forced to by events. If he had wanted Keystone XL, he would have had it a long time ago. Harper’s slow, steady and reasonable approach isn’t working here. He must change tactics.
He has to attack Obama and play the anti-American card. He must publically scold Obama for hating Canada. He needs to tell Americans that there will be no further cooperation from Canada on anything. At this point, Harper has nothing to lose by escalating. Obama has demonstrated that he will not put US-Canada relations above his domestic allegiance to his domestic environmentalist lobby. Harper must make Obama pay a price for this. Many Americans (including union members who traditionally vote Democrat) want Keystone XL. In opposing the pipeline, Obama will be forced to demonstrate to the American public that he doesn’t give a damn about the US economy (or energy independence from OPEC). Good luck selling that.
A side benefit of this spat is that this will benefit Harper politically at home. The traditional Liberal charge is that Conservatives are too pro-American. Here is a beautiful way to turn the tables. It will put Justin Trudeau on the horns of a dilemma: do you support Canada, or do you stab your environmentalist buddies in the back? Your choice.
From the perspective of political strategy, Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland has a relevant political lesson. What was his secret to success (aside from new-found oil wealth)?
He consistently picked fights with Ottawa, first with Prime Minister Paul Martin and then with Harper. In the case of Harper, the argument can be made that Danny Williams lost.
“During the 2008 Canadian Federal election, Williams hit out at incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the federal administration for reneging on a 2006 election pledge to exclude non-renewable energy sources from the equalization formula.”
On the face of it, Williams’ position was absurd. He essentially wanted his cake (oil revenues) and eat it too (keep the equalization payments from Ottawa flowing in by maintaining Newfoundland’s status as a have-not province, no matter how much oil money flowed in). Harper, of course, balked. If had caved in, every provincial premier would have knocked on his door demanding handouts. Williams retaliated with his ABC (Anybody But Conservatives) strategy in the 2008 federal election. In this, Williams won the battle (the Federal Conservatives lost all their seats in Newfoundland), but lost the war. With no Conservative MP’s left in Newfoundland, Williams ended up with zero influence on Harper, who had manfully taken his lumps and could now freely do what he wanted.
But in another sense, Williams won big:
“Williams' popularity is said to be unmatched in Canadian political history; his high approval ratings lasted right up until his retirement. Although Williams' premiership was considered quite controversial in Canada at large, except for his first year in office, his own provincial approval ratings and those of his government have been consistently in the seventy to eighty percent range for the majority of the time he was in office.”
Harper needs fight Obama the way Williams fought him. He needs to remember that in this war, symbolic gestures count for much (Williams took down the Canadian flags over provincial government buildings to make Paul Martin capitulate). In his fight for Keystone XL, Harper has two things going for him that Williams lacked. First, the argument for the pipeline is a lot stronger than the argument for equalization payments to a province swimming in oil money. Second, many in the US want the pipeline as well. No Canadian outside of Newfoundland agreed with Williams. Obama is taking significant heat at home for his Keystone stance.
Fight as hard against Obama as Williams did against him, and Stephen Harper can enjoy a Williams-style popularity boom during the next federal election.