Harper's Media Strategy, or Are You Pro-Rogue or Anti-Rogue? - Macleans.ca

Harper’s Media Strategy, or Are You Pro-Rogue or Anti-Rogue?



Dion’s already-legendary disaster with his response video has pretty much summed up his problems with media handling and message discipline. And Harper’s speeches last night and today, post-prorogation, provide a clue to his own methods. He’s often compared to Bush, and one of the reasons for this is that he shares an important part of the Bush approach: treat media and message discipline as the most important part of politics, rather than a sideline. Elements of this strategy include:

1. Find a talking point and stick with it. The Tories, after trying out a few other lines of attack, discovered that their best best was going with the “Separatist Coalition” talking point and the argument that the coalition would not be legitimate because it depended on the support of separatists. There may be something to this argument, but it’s not being treated as one good argument to support a larger argument; it’s become, really, the entire argument, repeated over and over again in various forms. This is a technique we saw frequently during the U.S. election in 2008, where the Republicans would pick up on something like “spread the wealth around” and turn that into the one and only issue for weeks. (The Democrats tried to do something similar with lines like “100 years in Iraq,” but they’re just not as good at it. I’m not sure why, but whenever Democrats and Liberals try to create a talking point, it usually bombs.) It doesn’t always work, as we’ve seen, but it is a popular strategy, and it’s a strategy that’s made for TV: by hammering on one thing, you guarantee that others will pick it up and repeat it on cable news, and before you know it, everybody’s arguing about whether this is a “Separatist Coalition” or not. And if people are arguing about your talking point, no matter who wins the argument, you’re winning because the argument is taking place on your turf.

2. Never admit mistakes, because that becomes a talking point for the other side. Some observers have been flabbergasted that even as he’s hastily reversing course on the things that got him in trouble in the first place, Harper never actually says that he’s made mistakes. This, again, is reminiscent of Bush, and media-wise, it’s a shrewd if cynical strategy. When you admit a mistake, that becomes not only a story, but the top story, and it becomes a universally-agreed-upon fact that you screwed up. If you don’t admit a mistake, then the story becomes a he-said/she-said thing: the opposition says X made a mistake, X says he didn’t. From that point of view, it’s better to reverse course while insisting that nothing’s changed at all. People may be exasperated with you for not admitting what everybody knows (you screwed up) but their exasperation will never be as big a story as “Prime Minister Says He Screwed Up” — and even if everybody knows it, that’s still better than if the news orgs are actually reporting it.

3. Call for “bipartisanship” but define it as the other guys doing what you want. To quote Kady: “He hopes the opposition parties will do the same – and he makes a not so veiled reference to some opposition members who would rather work *with* the government on the economy.” The idea of “bipartisanship” and “working together” is catnip to the TV talking heads; no concept is more highly valued. The way to exploit that is to redefine the terms so that your plan is the very definition of bipartisanship, and anyone who stands in the way is guilty of wanting to pull the country apart. It doesn’t necessarily convince anyone, but again, it allows the news-show arguments to proceed on your terms, rather than the opposition’s: if tonight’s top debate is “Are the opposition parties standing in the way of feel-good bipartisanship,” then Harper wins no matter what words get said.

Does this strategy always work? No. We’ve already seen that. (And if Harper were any kind of genius, he wouldn’t have gotten in this position in the first place.) But it sometimes works, especially in the short term. And that’s why, unless the Liberals learn some media skillz real fast, I have a feeling that the Conservatives will be able to use this hiatus to better advantage than the other side. This is a time for defining the debate and the talking points, and Harper can do that if nothing else.

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Harper’s Media Strategy, or Are You Pro-Rogue or Anti-Rogue?

  1. It works better with Republicans because they’re more gullible, simply.
    On the general trend, people with more education tend to be Democrats, more education teaches you to be both more cynical of the messages you hear, and more open to admitting that you’re wrong.

    Republicans, by contrast, have extreme difficulty admitting they’re wrong, so once they’ve picked a position, they stick with it, no matter how many facts they get presented with. This is what’s so frustrating for Democrats. You can slap them in the face with reality and they’ll spend all of their time trying to dodge the facts (truthiness vs truth) rather than simply accepting the mistake and adjusting their view.

    In short, they stop learning, which makes them more gullible.

  2. I have the feeling Barack Obama and Stephen Harper are not exactly kindred spirits.

  3. The golden rule: Never answer the Actual Question.

  4. “This is what’s so frustrating for Democrats”

    Oooo …. somthing like … I did not have had sexual relations with that woman.

  5. And we spell it “something” .. I know … I know … fat fingers.

  6. “And that’s why, unless the Liberals learn some media skillz real fast, I have a feeling that the Conservatives will be able to use this hiatus to better advantage than the other side. ”

    Good point Jaime but consider this: Harper’s media strategy is only successful if the media falls for it.

  7. Excellent post Jaime. You have very neatly summed up the strategy so far successfully employed by the Conservatives.

    In my opinion it has been succesful because:

    1) They are good at it.
    1) The Canadian political media has been almost universal in letting them get away with employing it (e.g. – puffball questions, partisan opinion and puditry rather than analysis etc.)
    3) The opposition has been terrible at executing anything similar

  8. Jaime

    I wish you would write more political posts, I always find them interesting. I have been watching lib talking heads differently since you pointed out they hold their fire a bit more than con talking heads a few months ago. Anyways …

    Point one, I agree with your point about talking points. I think it’s something to do with conservatives having an ideology that most of them agree on (at least first principles) while Libs/Dems/Progressives don’t have a core ideology except they are for rainbows, kittens and lollipops. The talking point is easier to establish if you have many people who can agree on the concept.

    Also, people on the left seem rather tortured and have a hard time boiling down their arguments. I am right wing and could probably explain any policy in a few sentences while I find people on the left are always trying to ‘see’ all sides, to be inclusive, while trying to put forth their own ideas and this leads to long windedness.

    Point two – ‘never apologize, never explain’ has been popular with pols well before Bush showed up.

    Point three – I find calls for bi-partisanship come more from the left than the right but I agree it generally means ‘stop believing in the things you do and agree with me’. The left are more about inclusiveness while right are more about debate/conflict. Personally, I like my conservatism to have lots of smite and wrath talk but that’s not true for all of us.

  9. The Democrats tried to do something similar with lines like “100 years in Iraq,” but they’re just not as good at it. I’m not sure why, but whenever Democrats and Liberals try to create a talking point, it usually bombs.

    It’s related to #2. The Republican response to the “100 years in Iraq” line was to deny he said it…and rather than simply running the footage of McCain saying it over and over and over again, Dems allowed nuance into the argument and tried adding qualifications and explanations. In this case and in others, while liberals may not be admitting they made mistakes in their argument, they still concede enough to muddy up a clear, straightforward argument, which in turn allows the right to get in there and create confusion.

    Basically, it comes down to being comfortable with lying (and being accused of lying). Republicans and Conservatives are less educated, so they see less problems with lying, even when faced with incontrovertible truth. By contrast, simply by virtue of the fact they tend to be more educated, Liberals/liberals and Democrats are prone to being more reflective and open to new arguments. That creates a bit of self-doubt and self-examination, which ruins a good talking point. Until and unless Liberals can learn to be as gleeful about lying and demonizing their opponents, Harper and the Conservatives are going to take us down a very Republican, very American path.

  10. PolJunkie, the media falls for it repeatedly. Admittedly the Liberal comms team is the absolute worse, anyone from the Paul Martin team still in a comms position should be dismissed immediately, then the Lib party should hire some A/V high school student, one who knows what the focus button does, and hopefully increase the competence.
    Unfortunately in all this, Stephane Dion, who I believe is an honest, sincere man with integrity (and who fought for Canada when it counted, to great personal sacrifice to himself and his standing in Quebec), will get pummeled from all sides even further, because he doesn’t have the ruthlessness or lack of principles like Harper. I am a big fan of Dion, who is genuine and doesn’t have a sweater-vest voice to fool the populace, but it is time for the Lib party to forsake the ridiculous 5 months of leadership bickering and have a new leader by the return of Parliament. I would’ve loved to have seen Canada under the leadership of Dion, but selflessness is not in vogue, so we need someone selfish and power-hungry to fight fire with fire.
    Do-over Harper bought himself some time (by sapping any and all credibility of the GG and showing it to be a lightweight and cowardly PR position), but it is borrowed time. Harper will be gone by the end of 2009. The era of the Politics of Anger is close to ending, and it is overdue that the Canadian people get some maturity and class from their elected representatives.

  11. Jaime,

    Indeed, your observations may be correct — yet they raise, for me, an obvious question; why are the journalists pushing partisan memes if they know they are being manipulated?

    Perhaps Democrats fail in messaging — not owing to a lack of skill — but because the press fails to focus for them as they do for Republicans.

    I have seen similar phenomena here in Canada. Parties are given equal time but unequal focus.

    I can’t count the times government messages are aired in full while opposition commentary is aborted mid-sentence.

    Why is that? I sure don’t know, but it is disturbing. Especially when, in Canada, one party is so far ahead of others in fund-raising that they can use their money to gain the advantage. This cannot be healthy for the majority of citizens.

  12. T. Thwim and matthew – please point to the any data that supports your notion that Liberal/Democratic voters are more educated than CPC/Republican voters. And even if such a correlation exists, believe me education doesn’t equate to smarts … I’ve run into a lot of book-learned folks that were for all intents and purposes challenged when it came to real life.

  13. All this is nothing terribly new, Jaime. The gawdawful ghost of Lee Atwater stalks the halls of parliament.

    It has worked for years in the US. It can work here too. We have the advantage in that we are exposed to so much US media and can more easily recognize garbage for what it is.

    But that’s an advantage, not a defense.

  14. Saying “book -learned” pretty much indicates you’re one of the Conservative idiots, so I’m not going to bother hunting for research for you. There are plenty of studies that came out following the US election that showed that the Dems won educated groups overwhelmingly. The studies have been the same for 40 years. I’m sure that they’d show the same in Canada, if we ever took electoral studies seriously. If you want to refute it, do the research yourself.

  15. jwl, my buddy, wow, I agree with everything you said, except for point three. I agree that the call for non-partisanship comes more from the left than it does from the right, but it seems to me that the left really means “come to the discussion with an eye on things we can agree on, and turn your focus away from those things you know we can’t agree on”. Long-winded? You bet, you’ve totally got me there.

    I find it fascinating that you can see all of that so clearly, and yet still prefer smite and wrath.

  16. Two quick points:

    Re #1: “Change” and “McCain = Bush” were pretty successful Democrat talking points.

    Re #3: Harper immediately eliminated the offending portion of the fiscal update ($1.95/vote and public sector strike ban), so he has already made the first compromise(s).

  17. Re #1: “Change” and “McCain = Bush” were pretty successful Democrat talking points.

    That’s true, and it’s a partial (very partial) explanation for Obama’s success that he managed to inject those into the mainstream. He had McCain talking about how he was the one representing “change,” and when your opponent is arguing that your slogan applies better to him, you’re winning.

  18. Jenn

    I am more libertarian than conservative so I am somewhat sympathetic to liberal policies. What makes more right wing is that I believe in strong law/order policies and social contracts while I believe modern libs are good intentioned but naive as their beliefs are leading us to a Hobbesian nightmare of a society.

    And I would be embarrassed to be associated with T Thwim, Matthew and plenty of others who seem to think claiming that people who think differently than them are stupid shows how clever/sophisticated they are while all it illustrates is how intolerant they are.

  19. Numerous studies have been done about the differences between conservatives and liberals in the U.S.

    Here is the summary of one such study”

    1. Liberals are more educated than conservatives.

    2. Liberals have enlarged higher-order thinking areas of the brain relative to conservatives.

    Does not mean liberals are smarter — only better educated. Also doesn’t mean there are no educated conservatives.

    If my memory serves, the main differences between people holding left vs. right views point to personality, which in turn influences things like education and career choices.

    Here is an excerpt from a Psychology Today article available online at the URL (in braces):

    …conservatives and liberals boast markedly different home and office decor. Liberals are messier than conservatives, their rooms have more clutter and more color, and they tend to have more travel documents, maps of other countries, and flags from around the world. Conservatives are neater, and their rooms are cleaner, better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional. Liberals have more books, and their books cover a greater variety of topics. And that’s just a start. Multiple studies find that liberals are more optimistic. Conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting, and playing musical instruments.

  20. And that’s why, unless the Liberals learn some media skillz real fast, I have a feeling that the Conservatives will be able to use this hiatus to better advantage than the other side.

    You know, the media calling for people to spend more money on the media is really self-serving.

  21. You know, the media calling for people to spend more money on the media is really self-serving.

    I suspect they could improve their media strategy while spending the same money (or less).

  22. “I suspect they could improve their media strategy while spending the same money (or less).”


    Mostly agree with that statement but I would suggest Libs spend a little more money on av people because the quality of last night’s response to Harper was shocking. :)

  23. jwl: I never said people who think differently than me are idiots. I said Conservatives are idiots. There’s a difference, since Conservatives tend not to think much. What you wrote — “Also, people on the left seem rather tortured and have a hard time boiling down their arguments. I am right wing and could probably explain any policy in a few sentences while I find people on the left are always trying to ’see’ all sides, to be inclusive, while trying to put forth their own ideas and this leads to long windedness. — basically proves that. Good policies shouldn’t be able to be explained in one or two sentences, since it means they really have no substance. The fact you think that’s a good thing goes a long way towards illustrating the Conservative viewpoint.

    And for the record, I was a PCer federally, but I left the Party when it got swallowed up by the Reformers since I had, and continue to have, no desire to be a member of a party that bases its policies on unthinking, gut level appeals to “strong law/order policies and social contracts”.

  24. Liberal talking point

    Harper =Bush, yawn

  25. Liberal Talking point,.

    “Harper got us in the mess”..

  26. Jamie,

    I agree with your assessment–even if it leads to depressingly cynical conclusions.

    The coalition (voiced most vocally by Layton) seemed to have a very good “talking point” in Question Period Wednesday: why is Harper more interested in saving his job than the jobs of Canadians??

    With the new unemployment numbers and another 52 days before anything substantive can be done on the economy, it seems sticking (and expanding) that idea is key for the Liberals and NDP. (Duceppe, on the other hand, is right to talk about marginalizing Quebec and the Conservatives hypocrisy in dealing with Bloc.)

    Right now, however, the story for the coalition is that it’s in “disarray”. That needs to change fast. Because anyone who voted Liberal, NDP, Bloc, Green, Other now has to be terrified of the prospect of how Harper would wield power in a Majority.

  27. Jaime,

    There is still a “talking point” against Obama in the USA: is his birth certificate legit or not?
    Why is it still lingering on?
    Why in your opinion Obama doesn’t produce the real document if he has one and stop the rumors?
    Or why he doesn’t admit that something is not 100% kosher with the document?
    Why neither Hillary, nor McCain used it against Obama?
    In any case, I believe this thing needs a closure before Obama takes the oath on Jan.20.
    Imagine the ramifications if it will be discovered that Obama intentionally or unintentionally lied.
    What is your take on this talking point?

  28. Thwim and Matthew are so…so…progressive. Me I’m just a dumb social conservative. Do you think some day I might get to be as smart as you guys? How ’bout if I drink lots of lattes?

  29. For the entire fiasco that was the Bush presidency, I felt proud (and even falsely superior) to live in a nation like Canada where politics was intelligent and reflected our country well. Now, I am the jealous one. The States realized the mistake of electing Bush, and though they have not recovered, they made a radical change in their electoral patterns. Here, we remained blind and will now have to pay the consequencces that come with an incompetent government. What a shame.

  30. You are correct. According to the latest poll this date… public opinion agrees with all Conservative talking points. How depressing!

  31. Just to be clear Kris, I said that conservatives were, in general, less educated, not less smart. You see, that’s part of the problem, they tend to not be open to what is actually being done or said, and instead seek to interpret anything based on a previously established view or mindset. Thus, they never see themselves as wrong, because what they see always agrees with what they already know.

  32. Explain to me how those talking point rules don’t apply to Dion?

    1. Election strategy: repeat “A richer greener Canada”/”Harper = Bush”/”I will protect your pensions” ad nauseum

    2. Dion denied the green shift was a bad idea, though clearly it was costing him the election.

    3. The coalition claimed Harper’s fiscal update “poisoned the well” and refused to offer any suggestions on how to moderate things, even as Harper showed a considerable willingless to offer concessions (on the strike issue and the public subsidy).

    I think the real issue is that you didn’t get the memo that the Harper=Bush talking point has been replaced by the “oh god we are so screwed” talking point.

  33. How about this…..Harper is defeated on the budget, goes to the G.G. and asks for an election. G.G. taking the advice of her PM says yes. That would explain the massive media blitz by the Conservatives. And people who do not know or understand the Parliamentary system will agree that the “Coalition” is run by separatists and that the vote to topple the govt. (as they see it) is illegal. Guess who will win the election with a possible majority!

    Everyone compliments Harper on his excellent stratigic skills. Comment anyone?

  34. If you read the comment for one of the Ontario Landowners Association, you will see what I mean. Apparently one of them think that Gilles Duceppe is going to be the PM.

    Need I say more? Ignorance is Bliss! at least to the Conservative machine and I might add they are encouraging such belief. That is what gets me mad. Misinformation.