The campaign-trail contrast: will Harper adjust?

Compared with Ignatieff's openness, Harper's risk-averse approach is looking brittle

Stephen Harper’s tightly controlled election run of 2011 will inevitably be compared and contrasted with Pierre Trudeau’s so-called “peekaboo” campaign of 1980, the classic of the genre.

John English wrote in Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Vol. II: 1968-2000, about how Trudeau toyed with the frustrated press, who petitioned him late in that campaign for reasonable opportunities to ask questions. During one stretch, Trudeau’s main way of interacting with the media was apparently to drop parody references to famous poems into his statements and see if one of the reporters could identify the original.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the tension building between Stephen Harper and the media he holds at bay these days won’t find release in a similar form of intellectual sparring.

Harper’s 2008 campaign was a pretty tightly wound affair too, and I recall the Trudeau ’80 parallel being drawn then, too. Having watched Michael Ignatieff’s freewheeling show in London, Ont. last night, however, I think there’s a key difference this time.

When Harper was up against Stéphane Dion—as when Trudeau ran for the second time against Joe Clark—it was a bubble campaign against a floundering campaign. I suspect it’s far easier to sustain several weeks of very limited access to the media, and few or no unscripted interactions with voters, if your main opponent isn’t putting on a compelling, open show up against you.

It’s not that Ignatieff is much more available to the media and the public than Dion was. It’s that the way Ignatieff handles himself in an exposed situation—talking without text, taking lots of questions, including hostile ones—commands attention in a way Dion, or Paul Martin before him, just couldn’t muster.

Ignatieff looks fully at ease doing politics-in-the-round. He stood in London on a platform at the centre of a crowd of a few hundred, told some jokes about Harper, riffed through his policy lines, and then answered a bunch of questions. Many came from Liberal fans, and they were mostly easy. A few were quite tough, though, including one about why he didn’t want to buy our military the fighter jets they need.

Harper is much stiffer in a similar setting, relying heavily on his teleprompter and not taking questions. Yet it’s more than possible he’ll merely ignore the Ignatieff contrast. Elections aren’t won or lost based on stump style; there’s advertising, debates, platforms. As well, many Conservatives, it seems to me, like the way Harper comes across—at his best he conveys (as I write in Maclean’s this week) an average-guy quality that matches his messaging.

Still, Harper’s risk-averse approach is bound to look increasingly brittle for as long as Ignatieff maintains the style he’s set in the early going. It’s not the contrast the Conservatives will want to start defining the campaign.

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