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.