AMERICA'S MOST SUCCESSFUL CONSERVATIVE
Jun 14, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 37 • By DAVID FRUM
IN THE FINAL FRENETIC DAYS of campaigning before his June 3 reelection victory, Ontario premier Mike Harris unveiled a shockingly unCanadian stunt: He produced at his speeches a lifesize fiberglass replica of a pair of blue jeans. His aides poured thousands of Canadian one-dollar coins into them -- representing the money that an average wage-earner will have saved each year in taxes by 2003, thanks to Harris. And then he roared his slogan: "More money in your jeans!"
Conservative electoral victories have become rare events in the age of Clinton, Blair, and Schroder -- so rare that when somebody manages to pull one off, especially in an inhospitable environment like Canada, it's worth paying attention. The lessons may travel.
Ontario is the biggest and richest province in the highly decentralized Canadian confederation, home to 11.5 million of the country's 30 million people, making its premier arguably the single most powerful politician in the country. For most of the postwar period, Ontario was governed by a succession of middle-of-the-road Conservatives, who presided over a slow, steady growth of the province's welfare state. It was Ontario Conservatives who agreed to join Canada's state health-care monopoly back in the 1960s, Conservatives who imposed rent controls in 1975, Conservatives who introduced racial quotas in public-sector hiring in 1985. In 1985, the strategy of stay-one-step-ahead-of-the-left finally sputtered out. The Conservatives lost power. They lost again in 1987 and once more in 1990.
Under the liberal and socialist governments of 1985 to 1995, Ontario taxes soared to levels never before seen in North America, not even during World War II. The top marginal rate exceeded 53 percent on incomes as low as $ 50,000 ($ 80,000 Canadian) -- on top of which Ontarians paid 15 percent combined federal and provincial sales taxes, plus onerous property taxes, and crushing taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, and booze. In 1990, the country plunged into the most severe and prolonged economic slump since the 1930s.
That slump gave the loser of the 1990 election, Mike Harris, his second chance. For the 1995 election, Harris forsook half a century of party tradition, and committed himself to a bold, ideologically conservative program. At its heart was a 30 percent cut in the province's income tax rates, the abolition of the most obnoxious of the province's payroll taxes, and reform of labor laws. Ontario's battered voters were not much impressed by the Harris platform; internal Tory polling apparently found that a majority of those who voted for Harris did not believe he would keep his promise to lower taxes. But they were desperate and willing to try anything. Guess what? Harris kept his promises. And then some.
In each of the 20 years before 1995, Ontario's welfare population had grown. There were more people on welfare in the prosperous year 1978 than the recession year 1975, more at the peak of the 1980s boom than at the trough of the 1981-82 bust. Harris cut welfare payments by 22 percent, and 300,000 people moved off the rolls. He abolished rent control and private-sector racial quotas. He instituted province-wide standardized testing of all students at three-year intervals -- and then published school-by-school results, so parents could judge not only their own child's progress but also the quality of the school. Harris's reforms to the curriculum and education financing provoked two province-wide teachers' strikes. He held firm both times.
The four years since 1995 have seen some of the nastiest strikes and ugliest protests in Ontario's modern history. Polls consistently predicted a Harris defeat; pundits condemned him as an unCanadian zealot. But all the while the Ontario economy was perking up, and -- despite a series of federal tax increases -- Harris's tax cuts were indeed putting more money into people's jeans.
Standard political logic would have dictated a "stay the course" campaign in 1999. Harris is not immune to that sort of reasoning: He crammed a boatload of pre-election money into Ontario's decrepit public-sector health monopoly and promised even more if returned to office. But more significant, and barely a month before the election, Harris unveiled another big tax cut, 20 percent across-the-board in income-tax rates and a similar cut in property taxes. He promised a stiffer curriculum for the schools, school uniforms if a majority of parents voted in favor, and testing of teachers. He promised drug testing for welfare recipients and parolees, a crackdown on the squeegeemen and the dangerously mental ill, who have been making once-tidy Toronto look like David Dinkins's New York. The result: A solid electoral win, 59 seats out of 103, 44 percent of the popular vote, and the first back-to-back parliamentary majority won by an Ontario politician since 1967.
Harris's triumph offers four lessons for defeat-weary conservatives in the United States and Britain.
(1) Tax cuts work politically if the public is convinced that the offer is sincere and will be carried out. Both Bob Dole and John Major tried to run as tax-cutters, notwithstanding their personal histories as tax-raisers. Understandably, the voters rejected them. Harris, on the other hand, is perceived by friends and foes alike as credible: Harris was rated more trustworthy than his main rival even by Ontarians who said they intended to vote against him.
(2) Conservative ideas travel most safely in convoy. It must have been awfully tempting to Harris to say -- "right: since we're cutting taxes, let's avoid issues like rent control, union power, school testing, and affirmative action so as to avoid inflaming our opponents any more than necessary." Instead, he calculated that those opponents couldn't yell any louder than they already were. The very ambition of his program protected it: In the end, his opponents chose not to attempt to capitalize on those other issues because they were too busy denouncing his fiscal program.
(3) The way to run against "third way" politicians (Harris's main opponent even lifted the Clinton phrase "Putting People First" for his platform) is not to try to meet them in the mushy middle but to seize the initiative from them with popular conservative policies they cannot copy. With the public-sector unions funding their campaigns, Harris's rivals could not endorse competency testing for teachers, and it hurt. The Liberals, the more moderate of the two anti-Harris parties, had grudgingly decided to accept Harris's first tax cut. They were completely flummoxed by the second.
(4) There is, finally, one paramount lesson to be learned from the Harris experience. Harris is a fine politician -- he's a comfortable, pleasant man cheerfully willing to stay off television and leave the explaining of controversial policies to expendable underlings -- but he's no magician. Harrises are made, not born. They are made by conviction, by a refusal to rest on past successes, and by an alert sense of where in one's own particular locality the shoe of government is squeezing the public foot too tightly. Oh and one more thing: by guts.
David Frum is a contributing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.