The Magazine


Jun 14, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 37 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.