Dion gets the last gaffe... but shame on all of us.

By Jared Wesley on Oct 9, 2008

In a campaign that was among the nastiest in recent memory, history will record: Stephane Dion had the last gaffe.  Dion's belly flop in Atlantic Canada came on the last full day of the campaign, as Canadians prepare for the extended Thanksgiving long weekend.  Words don't do it justice -- watch for yourself.

As with all of the other gaffes and embarassments in this campaign (puffingate, the sweatervest, the nudists, the pothead, the conspiracist, and others), there is enough blame and shame to go around.

Shame on Dion.... not for failing to understand the query (which was worded quite awkwardly by the interviewer), but for failing to have a stock response prepared to such an obvious question.  The Liberals claim Dion has a hearing problem; other sympathizers blame fatigue after a long, grueling campaign.  His detractors point to his tenuous grasp of the English language.  In any case, Dion's "30/50 Plan" is as confusing as the "Green Shift", and his lack of ability to communicate either is a severe shortcoming in his quest to be prime minister.

Shame on Harper.... for commenting at all on the story.  The Prime Minister actually went out of his way to draw attention to the gaffe, breaking his hard-and-fast rule of addressing the media only once a day, following his main media event.  The move looked crass, desparate, and -- rightly or not -- conjured up images of Kim Campbell's attacks on Jean Chretien in 1993.  It also tore the sweater vest off of the Tories' makeover of Stephen Harper's 'mean' image. 

Shame on the media.... for airing what was easily the crudest instance of "gotcha" journalism in a campaign full of examples.  The blame falls on the reporter for poor elocution and judgement, CTV for airing it, and the rest of the Canadian media for giving it credence.

At some point, Canadian politics will evolve beyond this... at least one would hope. 

Cynics argue that, as long as there is an audience for this type of campaigning -- both among voters and viewers -- we're in for more of the same.  That's the demand-side argument.

supply-side approach suggests that the parties and the media are just as much to blame.  This is not because they've failed to act "responsibly" in vetting candidates or eschewing smear politics.  (Although, of course, they have.)  The real problem lies in the fact that -- in the absence of any substantive policy debate -- there's little left to talk about except these gaffes and mis-steps.

In short, it will take a change in demand and supply to elevate Canadian campaings above the "snakesbelly" brand of politics we've experienced in 2008.  The market analogy is particularly poignant, given the context of this year's contest.

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What did Harper Actually Say?

Shame on Harper.... for commenting at all on the story. The Prime Minister actually went out of his way to draw attention to the gaffe, breaking his hard-and-fast rule of addressing the media only once a day, following his main media event.

What did PM Harper actually say relating to the video?

The Spin

The Conservatives drew attention to the video, offerering it as proof that Dion lacks a plan.  (Anyone who has watched the entire interview would see that he does, in fact, have ideas on how to handle the crisis.)  The issue was one of language comprehension, pure and simple.  Harper knows that, but knows he can't say that.  So, he drew as much attention to the gaffe as possible.

Here are Harper's comments, as reported in the Vancouver Sun

<<<<<"When you're running a trillion and a half dollar economy, you don't get a chance to have do-overs, over and over again," said Harper. "And I think what this incident actually indicates very clearly is that Mr. Dion and the Liberal party really don't know what they would do about the economy."

The prime minister conceded that he himself has misunderstood questions asked in French, his second language. But he argued that Dion's misunderstanding went deeper than that.

"I don't think this is a question of language at all. The question was very clear. It was asked repeatedly," Harper said.

"But what's important in the end, after all the times the question was put, the answer was from Mr. Dion that he does not have a plan, that if he is elected he would spend 30 days trying to create one. That's the answer, and that's what Canadians have to think about," said Harper. >>>>>>>>

For their part, Layton, Duceppe, and May have all written the incident off as "a bad moment" for Dion.  None has -- to this point, at least -- attempted to make hay out of the gaffe, beyond very indirect references to Dion's fatigue.  (This is an entirely separate issue, but one worthy of debate.  If he can't stand up to a 30-day election campaign, how will he stand up to the rigors of his own 30-day plan.)

The Liberals are spinning the issue in several directions:  (1) It is evidence of Harper's mean-spiritedness, in attacking a man with a physical disability (hearing problem).  (2) It is evidence that Dion is a victim of the mainstream media (false starts happen all the time in interviews, but are never reported).  (3) It supports the Liberals' framing of Dion as an underdog (embracing his weaknesses).

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