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The Re-framing of Stephen Harper


 
Just because you haven’t heard enough of Stephen Harper’s Ringo impression last weekend, the Ottawa Citizen today had dueling columns about what the upshot of the performance really is.
On the left is former Paul Martin speechwriter and Blackberry roundtable member Scott Reid. After conceding the immediate PR value of it all, he argues that this was a one-off that signifies “exactly nothing”.  As Reid sees it, unlike Chretien waterskiing, or Peter Mackay going to boot camp, Harper’s sing-along was not intended – and did not succeed – in changing his brand or “frame”.  He has no desire to suck up to the black-tie crowd, because he remains resolutely committed to his Tim Horton’s constituency, which disdains the latte crowd who clapped along with him the other night.
In sum, says Reid: “His appearance was an enjoyable play against type and a great bit of theatre. But it was a brief departure from his political strategy — not an expansion of it.”
On the right is Don Martin, who begs to differ. Unlike the sweater-vest gambit, which was seen by the public as transparently fake attempt at positioning himself as a man of the people, “the new act has sold well enough to generate a faint Harper-mania.” And the money graph:
While this all might be crass political optics to wow the middle-class women voters of suburban Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, the general public increasingly likes what they see in happy Harper and increasingly loathes what they see in the dark-furrowed brow that is Michael Ignatieff.
Oddly enough, I find myself in Don Martin’s corner. I was on CBC radio’s Q yesterday, chatting with Gomeshi stand-in Brent Bambury about all of this, and my plot points (at least the ones I wrote down before hand, not necessarily the ones I managed to remember. Radio always makes me nervous) were pretty much the ones that Martin hits. You can listen to the podcast here, but I’ll give you the bullet points:
– the performance played quite well amongst people (i.e. liberal women) that I never would have though would fall for this sort of shtick
– the story that it was all set up by Laureen Harper had two main effects. First, it established in the mind of the public, and more important, the punditocracy, that there is a level of trust between the Harpers that does not appear to be there between Harper and his official handlers. Second, it added a pleasantly domestic aura to the performance: watching it on YouTube, you can almost imagine Harper banging away at home while the kids roll their eyes.
– this was nothing like Reagan and Mulroney singing on stage in Quebec City, as Kinsella tried to spin it. If this is the best the Liberals can do in the way of a rebuttal (and it certainly beats Ignatieff’s “He’s been out of tune for four years”) then the Libs have been totally pwnd.
– this was not a one-off. Pace Scott Reid, this did amount to a subtle, but important shift, in Harper’s framing. The key point is that Reid misses (perhaps deliberately) is that Harper wasn’t sucking up to the latte crowd here. He wasn’t rising to their level; instead, he was bringing the latte crowd down to his. That was what made the choice of song, and co-performer, so genius. Playing a Beatles tune with Yo-Yo Ma is the ultimate middle-brow performance. If there is one classical musician the status-anxious middle class has heard of, it’s Ma. Totally non-threatening.
– Does this put Harper in majority territory, as Don Martin thinks? I’m a lousy political prognosticator. But I do think that politics is a game of inches, of incremental shifts in popular support. Harper didn’t have to win over the entire Liberal/liberal establishment. All he had to do was expand his frame just enough to open it up to people who had never given him a look before. And there is no question that he did that. There are still lots of people on the fence about Stephen Harper, but the fence has shifted importantly to the left over the past week.

Just because you haven’t heard enough of Stephen Harper’s Ringo impression last weekend, the Ottawa Citizen today had dueling columns about what the upshot of the performance really is.

On the left is former Paul Martin speechwriter and Blackberry roundtable member Scott Reid. After conceding the immediate PR value of it all, he argues that this was a one-off that signifies “exactly nothing”.  As Reid sees it, unlike Chretien waterskiing, or Peter Mackay going to boot camp, Harper’s sing-along was not intended – and did not succeed – in changing his brand or “frame”.  He has no desire to suck up to the black-tie crowd, because he remains resolutely committed to his Tim Horton’s constituency, which disdains the latte crowd who clapped along with him the other night.

In sum, says Reid: “His appearance was an enjoyable play against type and a great bit of theatre. But it was a brief departure from his political strategy — not an expansion of it.”

On the right is Don Martin, who begs to differ. Unlike the sweater-vest gambit, which was seen by the public as transparently fake attempt at positioning himself as a man of the people, “the new act has sold well enough to generate a faint Harper-mania.” And the money graph:

While this all might be crass political optics to wow the middle-class women voters of suburban Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, the general public increasingly likes what they see in happy Harper and increasingly loathes what they see in the dark-furrowed brow that is Michael Ignatieff.

I find myself in Don Martin’s corner….

I was on CBC radio’s Q yesterday, chatting with Gomeshi stand-in Brent Bambury about all of this, and my plot points (at least the ones I wrote down before hand, not necessarily the ones I managed to remember. Radio always makes me nervous) were pretty much the ones that Martin hits. You can listen to the podcast here, but I’ll give you the bullet points:

– the performance played quite well amongst people (i.e. liberal women) that I never would have though would fall for this sort of shtick

– the story that it was all set up by Laureen Harper had two main effects. First, it established in the mind of the public, and more important, the punditocracy, that there is a level of trust between the Harpers that does not appear to be there between Harper and his official handlers. Second, it added a pleasantly domestic aura to the performance: watching it on YouTube, you can almost imagine Harper banging away at home while the kids roll their eyes.

– this was nothing like Reagan and Mulroney singing on stage in Quebec City, as Kinsella tried to spin it. If this is the best the Liberals can do in the way of a rebuttal (and it certainly beats Ignatieff’s “He’s been out of tune for four years”) then the Libs have been totally pwnd.

– this was not a one-off. I think Scott Reid is wrong: this did amount to a subtle, but important shift, in Harper’s framing. The key point is that Reid misses (perhaps deliberately) is that Harper wasn’t sucking up to the latte crowd here. He wasn’t rising to their level; instead, he was bringing the latte crowd down to his. That was what made the choice of song, and co-performer, so genius. Playing a Beatles tune with Yo-Yo Ma is the ultimate middle-brow performance. If there is one classical musician the status-anxious middle class has heard of, it’s Ma. Totally non-threatening.

– Does this put Harper in majority territory, as Don Martin thinks? I’m a lousy political prognosticator. But I do think that politics is a game of inches, of incremental shifts in popular support. Harper didn’t have to win over the entire Liberal/liberal establishment. All he had to do was expand his frame just enough to open it up to people who had never given him a look before. And there is no question that he did that. There are still lots of people on the fence about Stephen Harper, but the fence has shifted importantly to the left over the past week.


 
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The Re-framing of Stephen Harper

  1. That was what made the choice of song, and co-performer, so genius. Playing a Beatles tune with Yo-Yo Ma is the ultimate middle-brow performance.

    Exactly, and I think that's an important point. If Harper had played something more sophisticated like a proper symphony, then it would be another story. Instead, he chose a down-to-earth song which everyone easily recognizes, and is very appealing. Reid completely downplays this point.

  2. He has no desire to suck up to the black-tie crowd, because he remains resolutely committed to his Tim Horton's constituency, which disdains the latte crowd who clapped along with him the other night.

    So now, Scott Reid of "beer and popcorn" fame, can be known to suggest that Tim Horton's goers disdains piano players and singers. I guess Reid has not changed his tune one bit.

  3. He has no desire to suck up to the black-tie crowd, because he remains resolutely committed to his Tim Horton's constituency, which disdains the latte crowd who clapped along with him the other night.

    So now, Scott Reid of "beer and popcorn" fame, can be known to suggest that Tim Horton's goers disdain piano players and singers. I guess Reid has not changed his tune one bit.

    • Well, its good for Harper's side if Reid and his ilk don't learn from their mistakes isn't it…

      • No doubt. And it shows that Reid doesn't consider it a mistake, he really does think that way.

  4. I'm curious what data you're basing your theory on? The political class and media sure love to write about it lately but I don't think the majority of Canadians have seen more than a short clip on their television news.

    I don't see this having much long term effect on Harper. It's already solidly ingrained in people's minds that's he's not one to be loved much and it won't be long before he loses his cool again. Don't get me wrong, it will certainly have a positive effect in the short term though, mainly due to Ignatieff's troubles.

    However. since Harper is not going to plunge Canadians into their next election until the Spring, this memory will fade. By then (and this is another millennium in political life) the public will have heard many 'negative' things that the government has done (look only at last spring and all the scandals and gotcha moments that happened).

    Harper will have to start holding news conferences in a piano bar if he wants to keep this momentum going for the long term. I don't think he could ever sing his way out of the $56 Billion deficit he's left us with.

    • "I'm curious what data you're basing your theory on?"

      Yup, first thing that came to mind for me too. My impression is that Harper's performance made people on both sides of the political spectrum feel a little queasy. And since I'm basing this on as much data as Potter, I think I've canceled out his conclusion here.

      • My impression is that Harper's performance made people on both sides of the political spectrum feel a little queasy

        Maybe it was just something you ate.

  5. "Harper didn't have to win over the entire Liberal/liberal establishment."

    Harper didn't have to but it certainly it appears that he has. Except for a few Lib partisans who have bee in bonnet, all we have been hearing for the past few days is that playing piano for 2.5 minutes is all you need to do to win majority government. Colour me skeptical about the power of Harper's performance over the electorate.

    Though I too have been surprised by lib women's reaction to it. The few that I know were absolutely gobsmacked by Harper and were re-evaluating their opinion of him but not one of them said they would change their vote because of it.

    • I remember many women saying, in the past, that they wouldn't vote for Harper because of his creepy eyes, or because he looked cold, or some other feeling that they got. Those are the types of people that might change their mind.

      Wente wrote this once: "I don't know how to break this to my girlfriends, but Stephen Harper's looking kind of good these days. The new haircut helps. The snarl is gone. He'll never be a charmer but, for the first time, he doesn't look as if he eats babies for breakfast. "

      and

      "Policy isn't everything, of course. Policy plays second fiddle to personalities, perceptions and gaffes. And I doubt I can persuade my girlfriends in latte land to take another look at Mr. Harper. They still think he's sneaky. "

  6. "I find myself in Don Martin's corner…."

    NOOOOOOOOO! Shocker!

    And thank you for actually listing out your talking points Potter. Wait…what is that faint sound I hear in the distance? Yes, methinks it is the bleating of sheep.

  7. Well done, Potter! I must have read a dozen pieces about the impact of Harper's NAC surprise, and your analysis is the best of the lot.

  8. "If Harper had played something more sophisticated like a proper symphony, then it would be another story. "

    I think that was Scott Reid's point.

  9. "it established in the mind of the public, and more important, the punditocracy, that there is a level of trust between the Harpers that does not appear to be there between Harper and his official handlers"

    What a weird thing to say.

    Who needed to have this established in their minds exactly??? How low would one's opinion of Harper have to be for one to need some sort of demonstration that he trusts his wife more than his employees???

    Well, thank God he played that song anyway, so we could all establish once and for all that our Prime Minister trusts the mother of his children more than he trusts Guy Giorno. I never would have guessed.

    • I wondered about that sentence as well but assumed Potter was talking about political tactics/strategy than just 'trust' in general.

      Laureen seems to know her onions when it comes to politics and images. Wells' has written a couple of times about a conversation he had with Harpers about correlation/causation of coming across to the public as personable and winning elections. Laureen said it matters a great deal but PM didn't think it mattered all that much.

    • I wondered about that sentence as well but assumed Potter was talking about political tactics/strategy rather than just 'trust' in general.

      Laureen seems to know her onions when it comes to politics and images. Wells' has written a couple of times about a conversation he had with Harpers about correlation/causation of coming across to the public as personable and winning elections. Laureen said it matters a great deal but PM didn't think it mattered all that much.

    • How ridiculous. You obviously don't know what sways 'urban women voters'. A strong marriage partner that you trust means that the total is more than the sum of its parts. The Obamas are not just 'mister O'; they are Mr. & Mrs. together and this is what makes them most effective. Women know this. I'm glad to see that Mr. Harper recognizes that his performance invested in his marriage… not only in his political career. Hats off to him.

  10. am i the only one that thought the lyrics "im getting by with a little help from my friends" just after the NDP propped the government is subtle and witty? I don't think one bit of this wasunintentional.

    • Yes,much as i despise Harper i have to agree with you. In this sense it was a good move for Harper to reveal that he may have a sly sense of humour. It allows for some possibility in the previously solidly anti-Harper crowd that the man may have hidden talents – and i/we don't mean musical, which all seemed very calculated to me. But the sly humour i like. A win for Harper. But the whole Martin/potter slant that he's morphed into TH's man who can mix it up with the liberal elites without being tainted is figment of over-stimulated imaginations and may even be a form of inverted snobbery. Your point is the more subtle one and possibly the more telling. But is Harper capable of communicating like this on a regular basis? I doubt it. Sooner of later he'll find a popular left-wing cause and not be able to rein in his were-wolf instincts.

  11. Say, does any politician in Ottawa do anything at a charity event simply for charity?

    And does any reporter/pundit/columnist in Ottawa ever look at anything anyone does without a political angle – if only for lack of other material or initiative?

    • S'actly. It's an Ottawa – Trawna media thing. Where I hang out about three people
      noticed the thing. Two of them have always sneered at Harper and continue to do so.
      The other ( a Harper bunny ) just giggled. Of course we are in the midst of a provincial
      by-election so those that pay attention to politics here are paying attention to that.

      But he would do well at the local fund – raising variety concerts. But not if he had to follow
      some family bellowing Barrets' Privateers.

    • S'actly. It's an Ottawa – Trawna media thing. Where I hang out about three people
      noticed the thing. Two of them have always sneered at Harper and continue to do so.
      The other ( a Harper bunny ) just giggled. Of course we are in the midst of a provincial
      by-election so those that pay attention to politics here are paying attention to that.

      But he would do well at the local fund – raising variety concerts. But not if he had to follow
      some family bellowing Barrett's Privateers.

      • Somehow, I can't also see Harper in a NS gig raising his beer in between songs and leading with a "Sociable!"

  12. Scott Reid can be considered left?

    • Scott Reid can be considered Angrily Contrarian, much like Warren Kinsella, notwithstanding his natural ideological proclivities.

    • In the Maclean's context. Not where real people live.

  13. Nice piece and nice interview on Q. Guess I'm just relieved to hear that Harper gets high.

  14. Those of us who have not swallowed the mean description given to us by a left-leaning media concerning PM Harper were not surprised by his performance last week-end. His wife is well aware of his humour and his confidence in his ability to do whatever he chooses.

    He may not be a good ole boy and backslapper like Mulroney or Paul Martin but he`s a well-balanced individual who does not feel the need to be liked by everyone.

    • Gee. Sounds like you and Laureen get together every Tuesday and giggle about how
      cute his bed head is in the morning. Close personal friends, eh?

      Does he really keep goats in the basement ?

  15. Is it your argument that Canadians are idiots and more likely to elevate the trivial into a governmental reward of unjustified means? Not that I hear many people fawning over the piano-man bit, but is it a journalists job to help exaggerate the significance of a two-minute outburst at a gala for the rich, or should you be out asking questions on how our government is doing/not doing its job?

    • The media is giving 'The Harp' equal time to 'wafergate'.

    • You're absolutely right, Dan. The giveaway was when he called politics a "game." From Rawls to Potter, they mean well but the result is the same: greater and greater rule for the empire of illusion.

  16. "hidden agenda" can't stick to Harper like maybe it could before this. It's always seemed to me that's all the Liberals really had – the perception of unsavoury motives and intentions in Conservative politics that they work so hard to foster.

    Maybe the air has cleared :)

  17. I'm actually closer to Reid's side on this one. I think in a world where American Idol draws more viewers than any other show it was a brilliant political move, the best of the year by far; but people have short memories and even shorter attention spans. If this had happened during an election campaign I might have called it a majority sealer. But I have to believe that any bounce he gets from his performance will probably not last very long.

    • Nah, when your PM gets that up close and personal with 2300 people in the room, and now over 500,000 viewings of the video, it's a game changer.

      • 500,000 viewings of the video, it's a game changer.

        It's unprecedented. Has any video featuring a Canadian politician ever come close to a half-million Youtube views?

        That number will keep on growing. I wonder what percentage of the electorate will have viewed it directly or indirectly (on TV news reports) before the next election?

  18. What would Beer and Popcorn Reid know about the likes and dislikes of the Tim Horton's crowd? Him and the rest of his Liberal ilk think they're all spouse-abusing, child-neglecting, too stupid to vote in their Liberal party betters peasants. The man is a scumbag and less we hear from him the better.

    • And your a moron for presuming to know what Reid likes or dislikes. He may, for all you know, spend more time inside THs in any given year than our PM.

    • Was just on another blog, where the conversation was Scott Reids article in the g&m from December,
      he was rallying the coalition of losers with a 'kill him, kill him dead' article.
      yah, scumbag fits.

      • Forgot about that. Yeah, he is a scumbag.

        • Yeah right and you two always cut a guy some slack…right. Didn't SR offer a reasonable explanation for his gaffe? No? Of course not!

  19. Andrew Coyne hits the nail on the head when he states: "I think what we saw that night was official Ottawa transferring its allegiance. Power, they can sense, is consolidating in Harper's hands. Now it was time to kneel and kiss his ring."

    • Did he ever! Even though it depresses me. Our elites we have with us always. In some cases the very same people who bowed the knee before PET the philosopher king will now transfer their allegiance to a new king. You scatch my liberal conscience and i'll buy your Tory hedge fund.

    • Did he ever! Even though it depresses me. Our elites we have with us always. In some cases the very same people who bowed the knee before PET the philosopher king will now transfer their allegiance to a new king. You scatch my liberal conscience and i'll buy your Tory hedge fund.

  20. It reminds me of Reagan Democrats. We are beginning to see the emergence of Harper Liberals.

  21. Harper-mania?!? God help us all…

  22. My esteem of Mr. Harper has risen tenfold from watching this video. Unlike other people in Ottawa, I had no idea that he had an ounce of musical talent in his body. The fact that he made it to grade 9 piano shows that he at least has an idea of the amount of effort and work that goes into pursuing an artistic passion. I find that this contrasts with how he has spoken of and acted in relation to the arts, but it definitely opens my eyes and makes me think that there is more to him than he has so far let on. I think that there is actually a genuine guy under that suit…. At least his passion for Canada is genuine. I was very proud to see how he handled the American media on his last trip to the USA. Surprise us again Mister Harper!

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