In a campaign, substance is impossible

By Joseph Planta

VANCOUVER - Stephen Harper is set to criss-cross the country this summer to glad-hand supporters and other Canadians in an effort to rehabilitate his lacklustre image. It's a start, but will it be enough?

The Conservative leader has long had a less than spectacular image. There's something about Harper that rubs people the wrong way. There's nothing wrong with being self-admitted geek or policy wonk. Nevertheless, it's clear lacking pizzazz is something he and his handlers want to correct on the campaign, er barbecue trail this summer.

It's been said that Harper has always had victory snatched from his grasp. Last year's federal election saw Harper do surprisingly well in the first half of the campaign. There was a possibility that the Conservatives were to win at the very least a minority. However, by the end of the writ period, the Liberals managed the minority. Just as the Conservatives were about to pull the plug on the minority parliament in late May, Harper is dealt a blow with the defection of Belinda Stronach. Now, perhaps Harper couldn't have necessarily placated Stronach's abject desire for power, but a leader's deft and astute planning could have prevented the fallout, and have lessened the impact of such a visible defection.

I'm reading a book called Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi (New Press, 2005). It's about the 2004 presidential race in the United States, which has been described as written in the vain of Hunter S. Thompson. In it is an apt axiom for campaign journalists: substance is impossible.

While Harper seems to have it nailed down in the substance department, he's woefully inadequate in the style department. His hair is unimaginatively coiffed making him less vibrant than Paul Martin who's a couple of decades older (whose own hair is grey). Jack Layton is about a decade older than Harper, but he seems more fun to hang around. Last week, Harper and his deputy leader Peter MacKay strolled out to lawn on Parliament Hill to throw the football around. The intended image was to show Harper more animated. Someone should have warned him not to throw the football around, considering what it did for Robert Stanfield. (Stanfield throwing the ball around, fumbles and the outtake was the shot that ran in papers throughout the country, and sealed his fate against a much more athletic looking Pierre Trudeau.)

The shots of Harper that the papers have run as of late have generally been flattering, but I'm sure, as has already surfaced on Pierre Bourque's website, shots of Harper fumbling may emerge later on. (Don't forget it was Bourque who pointed out, after a weekend press conference soon after becoming the leader, thanks to the golf shirt opted for, that Harper had 'man boobs'.)

This weekend, attending a strawberry social at some nursing home in Ottawa, the wire has photographs of Harper handing out ostentatiously garbed teddy bears, and him dancing with a resident. The cynic in me would decry this sort of blatant and public effort of Harper to rehabilitate his image. But I'm reminded of Preston Manning, who for years refused to tinker with his own image-remember the squeaky voice, the ugly glasses, and the nerdy hair? In his autobiography he lamented the need to mend one's image for the sake of public consumption, but admitted that very often ones public image take attention away from the message. Harper's image distracts from the substance of his message. Voters are fickle. They want something interesting or fresh to look at. Think of Belinda Stronach. She's was hardly a substantive politician when she entered the fray, but she got a hell of a lot of attention because of the way she looked. She was an anomaly in politics, thus the attention paid to the new kid on the block. Harper dons a suit, he's white, and he's spent a good part of his adult life thinking about public policy. He's prototypical vanilla.

The desire for revamping ones image however has its faults. Stockwell Day is case in point. He wanted to 'do politics differently,' and showed up at his first press conference on a jet-ski. Skidoo Day is but a footnote in history now.

There's no doubt that Stephen Harper, should he ever become prime minister, would be a good one. However, the same was said of Robert Stanfield and Preston Manning. History vindicated the two, and it will of Harper. However, Harper doesn't want to wait for history. He wants to be prime minister now.


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