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Republicans could learn from Canadian conservatives

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Around the time American conservatives were admitting utter defeat in the budget showdown, Canadian conservatives were introducing their legislative agenda for the new session of Parliament, which they've run for seven years.

If Republicans are looking for a better way to get what they want, they could start by looking up north.

Sure, the setting was a little different. The Canadian government outlined their proposals in the form of a speech by the Queen's representative, who sat on a red velvet throne and was introduced by man carrying a three-foot black rod.

It's more middle earth than middle America.

But beneath the pomp, Republicans would recognize many of their own priorities in what their Canadian cousins in the governing Conservative party promised to do.

That includes legislation requiring balanced budgets most of the time, a debt- to-gross-domestic-product ratio of 25 per cent, and a law that says for every new government regulation, another must be removed.

The speech also promised less government, more pipelines and more trade agreements.

Sen. Ted Cruz must be starting to wonder whether it was such a good idea to give up his Canadian citizenship after all.

What's the secret?

The Conservative Party of Canada benefited from a fractured opposition, a boom in natural resources and a sound financial sector that weathered the recession better than other developed countries.

But it also learned to choose its battles carefully, and to tailor its policies to broaden the party's support, not shrink it.

That's meant silencing some demands from social conservatives (restricting abortion, resuming capital punishment) while embracing others (fewer methadone clinics, tougher criminal sentences). It's meant using stimulus spending when it helps the economy, rather than attacking economics as a discipline.

Winning also means commandeering proposals from other parties when those ideas are political winners.

The government promised to side with consumers against banks and cable companies and to offer the middle class more financial help -- main planks of the two opposition parties' platforms.

It's hard to imagine today's Republicans endorsing a Democratic proposal under any circumstances, especially in order to steal it.

There's a word for all that, of course: It's generally called pragmatism, and it's working.

As a portion of the economy, both total tax revenue and taxes on corporate income have fallen every year since 2006, when the Conservatives took office.

Government social spending as a share of GDP has fallen each year since the end of the recession -- and, tellingly, is now lower than in the U.S.

The Conservative party would be hard-pressed to argue these changes reflect deeply held values of Canadians, who don't share the animosity toward government and taxes that so defines Americans.

That's what makes its accomplishment so noteworthy: Conservatives have shrunk government despite, not because of, general public sentiment. And they've done so by not making a big deal of it.

Compared with that, Republicans' inability to achieve a similar agenda on much friendlier terrain, choosing instead to shout themselves hoarse over a health-care law they can't change, looks like more than just a bad strategy.

It starts to look like a repudiation of the idea that principles are the only virtue in politics, and compromise the vilest sin.

If Republicans can get over that idea, they can hope to hear the same speech Canadians just heard. Minus the rod.

Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board.

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2013 A15

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