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What the GOP can — and can't — learn from Canada's Conservatives
Canada's right-wing party won control of Parliament this month — but their strategy on immigration and hardline Tea Party-types wouldn't work in the U.S.
 
David Frum
David Frum

So here's a nasty cosmic joke:

Canadian conservatives spend years — decades, really — trying to capture the attention of their American counterparts. Then, finally, the chance arrives! At a moment when American conservatives are groping their way forward, Canada's Conservative Party wins a stunning against-the-odds victory in the May 2 federal elections.

Suddenly guys who couldn't get past the rope line last week are being shown to Table 1. Equally suddenly, a long line of American conservatives is queuing to explain how the Canadians did it.

Unfortunately, the explanations are, in almost every case, wrong. Well, "wrong" is such a harsh word. Let's just say: Insensitive to local realities. The errors fall into two main types.

Error 1 is to say that the Canadian example vindicates the hard-line "Tea Party" mood now ascendant in the House Republican Party.

Error 2 is to say that the Canadian example suggests that U.S. Republicans should endorse a more open immigration policy.

Both errors seize on tiny particles of evidence — and disregard much larger piles of contrary fact.

Start with Error 1. It was actually a Tea Party-style drive for ideological purity that drove Canadian conservatives into the ditch in the first place. Canada elected Conservative governments in 1984 and 1988. Those governments achieved many important successes, but not enough to satisfy the party's most fervent supporters. The supporters bolted to form a populist challenger to the Conservatives — the Reform Party. In the election of 1993, the old Conservatives and the new Reformers split the right-of-center vote, allowing the Liberals to win a majority with only 37 percent of the ballots. The same thing happened in 1997. And again in 2000.

It was actually a Tea Party-style drive for ideological purity that drove Canadian conservatives into the ditch in the first place.

Those three defeats showed Canadian conservatives the need to reunite. But they still needed more. The reunited Conservatives gained seats in 2004 — but not enough to form a government. What Canadian conservatives have had to do since 2004 is prove to Canadian voters that the party could be trusted to govern effectively, that it was not lusting to use the power of a parliamentary majority to impose — wham! — something like the Paul Ryan Medicare plan on unsuspecting Canadian voters. That process has taken seven years. The Conservatives gained seats in 2004, gained more in 2006, gained more again in 2008, and at last gained a majority in Parliament on May 2.

But they gained those seats only because they painstakingly proved that the basic institutions of Canadian life were safe in their hands. The word most often used by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011 was "stability." The Conservative platform proposed restraint in the future growth of government spending, a gradual move to a balanced budget as the recovery strengthened, and a steady reduction in taxes consistent with a balanced budget. There would be reform, but incremental reform. Nobody talked about repealing major government programs. Nobody proposed to shutter the Canadian central bank.

What makes this Canadian moderation all the more striking is that it comes after the Tea Party wing of Canadian conservatism defeated its internal ideological opponents. What the Reformers found, however, was that it was not enough to win an internal party contest. The job of making themselves acceptable to a broad national electorate remained. So, ironically, it was a highly personally ideological leader in the party, Stephen Harper, who engineered the Conservatives' self-reinvention as the party of stability.

The second error — about the need for a more open immigration policy — is based on a misreading of the Conservatives' success in winning immigrant votes. Canada receives more immigration relative to population than the United States. Immigrants tended in the past to vote Liberal. Over the past seven years, the Conservative Party invested great effort to change that trend, with considerable success. Internal party polls showed that in 2011, the Conservatives won 65 percent of the votes of Canadians who speak Chinese in the home.

U.S. Republicans do have something to learn from the Canadian example. The Conservatives worked hard to recruit candidates of East Asian and South Asian origin. They acknowledged historic grievances of particular immigrant communities: Chinese and Sikh memories of head taxes and ethnic exclusion. Half of politics is showing up, and the almost superhumanly energetic Immigration and Citizenship minister Jason Kenney showed up at so many events that Canadian observers speculated there must be at least two of him, and possibly three.

So yes, by all means, U.S. Republicans should emulate the active wooing of immigrants and their children and grandchildren. But U.S. Republicans should also note: The Canadian success owes a great deal to the specific situations of Canadian immigrant communities — situations very different from those prevailing among U.S. immigrant communities. Here were groups that were better educated than the Canadian average, more affluent than the Canadian average, more likely to own their own business, more likely to live in two-parent families — but who voted for the parties of the liberal Left because they did not feel culturally comfortable with the party of the Right. That's a problem that can be fixed by communication and outreach.

But the largest American immigrant communities are less educated, less affluent, less likely to own a business, and less likely to live in two-parent parent households than the American average. They vote for the party of the Left not only for cultural reasons, but also because they need and want more government assistance. The Republican problem with immigrant voters is bigger and more intractable than the Canadian Conservative problem. And those writers who urge Republicans to win immigrant votes by endorsing amnesty for illegal immigrants are urging them to make their electoral problem bigger and more intractable still.

 

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