You have to be almost elderly to remember the last time the Republicans lost a presidential election in a straight two-way fight. 1996 and 1992 were three-way races, in which the third party candidate appealed more strongly to conservatives than to liberals. 1976 was the Watergate election – and despite that, an amazingly close result. Not since 1964 have American conservatives tasted the full bitterness of political defeat.
Elsewhere in the democratic world, however, center-right parties have often had to endure frustration and disappointment. The Canadian experience was especially hard: a dozen years in the wilderness until Stephen Harper reunited the Canadian right and returned to government – if only as a very fragile minority.
I lived through much of that history. That experience may explain why I am so much more worried about the 2008 election than many of my conservative friends and colleagues. Yes, many of the conservative talk radio hosts are now openly predicting that the Republicans could lose in November. But they continue to talk about such a loss as a passing event, a prelude to future successes, a detour from the main road of conservative success.
But sometimes a defeat is a prelude to more defeats – defeats from which recovery can be excruciatingly difficult.
A new book, Harper’s Team, tells the story of the conservative recovery in Canada: the negotiations that reunited the warring factions of the Canadian right, the tortuous process by which Stephen Harper won acceptance as leader, and the two elections that first reduced the Liberal government to minority status and then put the Conservatives in their place.
Harper’s Team is the work of a uniquely authoritative author. Tom Flanagan is not only one of Canada’s pre-eminent political scientists, but he has occupied a series of very senior roles in first the Reform Party and then the re-established Conservative Party of Canada, culminating in the job of campaign manager for Stephen Harper. Imagine if James Q. Wilson had been chief of staff to Newt Gingrich and then campaign manager to George W. Bush in 1999-2000, and you have some idea of Flanagan’s place in the Canadian scheme of things.
(And for my paleocon chums who always grumble about Canadians intruding into US politics where they are not wanted, may I point out that this most eminent Canadian political figure was born, raised, and educated in the United States?)
Flanagan’s book is detailed, knowledgeable, and crammed with practical wisdom about the rebuilding of a battered political franchise. It is also remarkably fair-minded and generous to all involved. As a necessary correlative, it is also very discreet about the conflicts and rivalries attendant on any long-haul political project. That discretion may frustrate Canadian readers in search of juicy gossip. If anything, however, it will make Harper’s Team more accessible – and more valuable – to those American conservatives who may turn to it for advice if the day for Republican rebuilding should ever come.