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.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.