Who Framed Stephen Harper?

By Jared Wesley on Sep 18, 2008

Let's recap:  In the first ten days of the campaign, the Conservatives have managed to offend the families of fallen soldiers, victims of the Listeriosis outbreak, "sober" Aboriginals, sweater-vest manufacturers, and incontinent puffins.  My prediction:  The list won't end there.  The reason: the Tories have fallen victim to their own campaign frame.

When a party makes "leadership" its major campaign theme, and when it markets its "war room" as a campaign personality unto itself, it establishes a specific frame for the media and voters.  When the party performs well in these areas, the frame works.  So long as Stephen Harper looks Prime Ministerial, and so long as the war room generals run a disciplined campaign, the Conservatives succeed in meeting the expectations they've set for themselves. 

When leadership becomes suspect and gaffes mount, however, the frame actually works against the party.  Ironies begin to accumulate, and the media searches actively for more to report.  Instead of looking like a strong captain of a tight ship, Harper finds himself making daily apologies on behalf of his ministers and campaign staff.  Instead of controlling the news cycle, the Tory war room finds itself being part of the news cycle... and not in a good way.

The truth is, all of the leaders have made mistakes in this campaign.  Most parties have had to dismiss or censure candidates, either in this campaign or the last.  And all of the war rooms have made gaffes, both major and minor.  With the possible exception of Scott Reid's "Beer and Popcorn" remark last time around, none of these have made lead news stories.  (Dion's chronic leadership woes count as an image problem, more than an incident-specific concern.)

Why do these issues stick to the Tories?  Because they fit within the frame the party has established for itself.  The media isn't framing the Conservatives.  They're doing it to themselves.

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Leader-centred campaigns can be risky

Good post, Jared, but I wonder how much all of this is sticking to Harper in the eyes of the general public. The other thing that's pretty remarkable is how much more mistake-prone the Conservatives have been during the campaign than they have been in the previous 2 1/2 years in power. Maybe we're starting to understand why the Harper PMO monopolizes all of the government communication.

Retired Generals

The loss of discipline follows the departure of Flanagan, Brodie and others from the Tory war room.  It may have moved to a big, new building, but a fresh coat of paint can't cover the loss of those guys.

Incidently, the Liberals have undergone a similar strategic decline, after Kinsella and his team were driven out of the party.  There's something to be said for campaign talent.

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