For good or ill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s style is baked in

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Conservatives are feeling decently upbeat, if not a titch smug, as they kick back for the holiday. And why wouldn’t they feel this way?

The governing side has had a good few months. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has played to his strengths in foreign affairs, smiting Russian strongman Vladimir Putin rhetorically, and standing up to Islamic State terrorists. There’ve been no new political catastrophes, beyond Julian Fantino at Veterans Affairs, which is not really new. And promises of goodies from the Treasury, the fruit of much public service attrition and belt-tightening, have begun flowing out to the suburban hockey moms and dads who will pass judgment next year on the Tory coalition.

The low thirties in popular support is not a terrible place to be heading into an election year, when you still hold the economy card, and have the leader most experienced at national campaigning. It does not hurt Tory morale one bit that the PM has never made a major goof in the pressure cooker of a televised debate, whereas his principal antagonist, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, has a record of making them willy-nilly, in settings that contain no adversarial element at all.

The Tories I talk to are sanguine about Harper versus Trudeau, perhaps even straying slightly into over-confidence, and not much worried about the threat posed by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair either, because of the obstacles the latter has set in his own path in English Canada. Mulcair is the acknowledged master of question period derring-do. But he could be Winston Churchill himself, is the feeling among Conservatives (and Liberals too, for that matter), and it still wouldn’t save him now West of the Ottawa River. So, given where matters stood a year ago — the government under siege over the Senate spending scandal, the caucus touchy and restless — Conservatives have every reason to feel more optimistic this holiday season than they did last.

That said, one has to wonder, seeing how the wind has shifted of late, how they might be doing now if the PM had made an effort, even a token one — and no, singing la vida loca with his band is not, in and of itself, enough to do the job — to moderate his party’s image and spruce up his own brand.

I’ve had this conversation with a number of senior Conservatives and it goes as follows: This prime minister is a very strong communicator when he chooses to be. He can be eloquent and persuasive, as he was in a free-flowing press conference following the CNOOC-Nexen decision two years ago. He can be eloquent and moving, as he was in his eulogy at finance minister Jim Flaherty’s funeral in April.

So why, since politics is a word art, does Harper not speak more frequently? The argument that he’s avoiding potential unforced errors doesn’t hold water. Though more and longer scrums would suit us in the gallery just fine, he could also deliver more prepared speeches. He could talk about a united Canada, how Quebec separatism has somehow magically withered and died on his watch; he could talk about Arctic development and the Franklin Expedition, subjects he knows and cares about; he could do a town hall on the history of professional hockey, about which he wrote, it is rumoured, a thick book.

But here’s the answer that comes back: For one thing Harper just doesn’t like doing this stuff; it’s not his thing, no one knows why, but he’s not about to change. For another there’s some value in a leader holding himself in reserve, just a little, lest he become over-exposed. U.S. President Barack Obama is the savviest, most relaxed and cool late-night TV talk-show guest on the planet. But good at his job? Not much.

Boil those notions down and we’re left with this: Maybe Harper seals himself off, to the degree that one can in his role, because it’s the only way he has found he can successfully function. He and his advisers must realize that personal demonization of him is the opposition’s most potent weapon, and that Trudeau’s “sunny ways” persona has been deliberately built to offer a contrast. If he, Harper, doesn’t change, perhaps it’s because he’s already doing as much as he can.

Whatever the reasons, he no longer has much to prove. He is already Canada’s sixth-longest-serving leader, having passed Brian Mulroney in November. A decade into his tenure, and without being particularly popular or personally liked, Stephen Harper remains solidly in contention to win at least a minority next year, and possibly more, depending on how his opponents perform. And, there is nary a whisper of dissent from within his own party.

Measured against the record of all other recent prime ministerships, that is remarkable indeed. It suggests the cardboard caricature of Harper-as-Sith-lord is just that, a caricature; and that, until the day he steps aside, he should not be counted out.

 

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