Stephen Harper: Jiu Jitsu Master?
Melanee and lots of other commentators have characterized Harper's recent defence of arts subsidies as an "amateur mistake." I'm not so sure.
I read Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland after Paul Wells' remarkable review of it. Wells is right: Harper today looks alot like Nixon a few decades ago. And one of Perlstein's insights about Nixon was that he was a master of "political jiu jitsu": the art of screwing up in order to tempt your opponents into attacking you on the the terms of your choosing. The result can oftentimes be to solidify loyalty amongst existing supporters. "Let them pounce on your 'mistake,' " Perlstein writes, "then garner pity as you wriggle free by making the enemy look unduly aggressive. Then you inspire a strange sort of protective love among voters whose wounds of resentment grow alongside your performance of being wounded. Your enemies appear to die of their own hand, never of your own. Which makes you stronger." And by laying out irresistible honey pots for his opponents, Nixon was able to maintain control over the debate even as those opponents were certain that he had long since lost it.
Another lesson from Nixon via Perlstein: It doesn't hurt to be hated by people, as long as they're the right people.
Back to Harper attacking Canadian artists. Harper has become a beacon of self-control, but his comments on arts galas yesterday were intemperate, almost a caricature of the old Harper - The Harper that Liberal partisans suspect is lurking behind the blue sweater and will emerge the moment he scores a majority government. "I think when ordinary working people come home," said Harper, "turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people." The provocative comment was sure to provoke responses from the other leaders, and Dion and Layton rushed to take advantage of Harper's "gaffe" by defending Canadian artists and government subsidies.
The question is: Was Harper lashing out or was he engaging in the old political jiu jitsu? Well, that depends on whether you think that defending taxpayer-funded subsidies to the arts is a good selling point to working and middle class Canadians when Harper is out there promising tax cuts. Try to put yourself in the boots of that Canadian worker sitting on the couch some evening drinking beer when Dion comes on the TV screen defending these subsidies. Is he likely to trade a tax cut for more Cronenberg movies? Good grief, Harper even invoked the image of working Canadians sitting on the couch watching TV after a hard day's work.
Furthermore, in rushing to take advantage of Harper's gaffe, Dion - who delivered a jaw-dropping line about how artists have to rent their tuxedos and "beautful gowns" when they attend galas - managed to place himself squarely in the narrative that the Tories have been constructing of him: Elitist and out-of-touch with the needs of regular Canadians.
Maybe I'm wrong and this issue will hurt the Tories. But I think it's more likely that Dion walked into a trap set by Harper. In Dion's defence, the media's emphasis on gaffes, quick rebuttals, and snappy aggressive sound-bites may make it tough to avoid the sorts of traps laid by jiu jitsu masters like Harper.