media and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

26 Mar '07

The Flip-Flop Drumbeat

CanWest, CTV play along as Tories label Dion.

Is Stéphane Dion a flip-flopper? When you think of him, do you picture a fish out of water, flipping and flopping in a desperate attempt to get back into the (main)stream? If enough Canadians believe he is, Dion stands to lose the next election. That’s what happened to John Kerry in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. The Republicans tarred him as a chronic flip-flopper, and the label stuck.

Google “John Kerry” and “flip flop” and you’ll get 250,000 hits. You’ll even find a brand of footwear called the John Kerry flip-flops, which are perfect to wear to the beach. That’s where you’ll find Kerry — or on the ski slopes — while his rival is busy in Washington looking after the nation’s business.

George W. Bush can thank pollster Frank Luntz in part for bringing down Kerry, and Stephen Harper has turned to Luntz for advice on how to win his election. Time for some Kerry treatment on Dion.

Luntz is a prominent Republican spin-doctor, a master at framing the political debate through his use of language. He’s credited with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 via his bogus Contract with America.

Luntz was in Canada in May 2006, to meet privately with Harper and to address the shadowy Civitas Society, whose members include Harper’s chief-of-staff Ian Brodie, his longtime political mentor Tom Flanagan, and Environment Minister John Baird. Montreal Gazette reporter Elizabeth Thompson heard Luntz tell the 200 libertarians and neoconservatives that voters want someone who is credible and they can trust, more than someone who shares their ideas. “More than anything else, they want to know you are a straight shooter,” he added.

Flip-flopper Kerry-Dion; straight-shooter Bush-Harper?

After Bush featured Kerry’s flip-flopping as a central theme in his convention speech, Luntz asked swing voters in Ohio to give him one word to describe Kerry. The top answer was “flip-flop.” The message got through, and Luntz must have been satisfied. Bush won Ohio, and Ohio gave Bush the presidency. Of course, we must remember that the state Republican administration ensured that 357,000 Ohio voters, the overwhelming majority of them Democrats, were prevented from voting or did not have their ballots counted.

Double standards

Harper can’t rely on such shenanigans to get him elected in Canada, so the Dion-as-flip-flopper frame needs to do some heavy lifting for the Tories.

What is a flip-flopper? People must change their minds from time to time, as situations change or new information becomes available. There is nothing wrong with this. Even our most prominent citizens do it. In a recent Globe and Mail column, Rick Salutin called Conrad Black a flip-flopper who changed from hating Canada to loving it. Salutin argued that flip-flopping is “a sign of adulthood. If you don’t flip-flop, you’re either perfect or you’ve stopped growing.”

There’s even a word for changing one’s mind: volte-face, a reversal of policy, an about-face. But “Dion the volte-facer” doesn’t cut the mustard the way flip-flopper does. What kind of footwear does volte-face conjure?

Of course, volte-face does have the merit of being French, and we shouldn’t forget the attempts by the Harper conservatives at the Western Standard to vilify Dion by accusing him of divided loyalties because of his dual Canadian and French citizenship.

There’s a Kerry angle here too. When France refused to toe the Bush line on Iraq, it was placed on the Bush enemies list. French fries were renamed freedom fries. All of a sudden, people thought Kerry looked French and this was discussed at great length on the conservative media. (Google “John Kerry” and “French” and you’ll get over a million hits.) The highlight was the line by a senior administration functionary who started his news conference by saying, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, or, as John Kerry would say, ‘bonjour.'”

Harper has changed his mind more than a few times. Think of his about-faces on Kyoto and taxing investment trusts. But few in the media are calling him on it. And while Dion’s flip-flops demonstrate weakness, Harper’s are a sign of strength, at least according to National Post columnist Don Martin. After slagging Dion for most of his column, Martin then writes, “to be fair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been known to change his mind. Just ask income trust investors.” Harper the straight-shooter changes his mind. Dion never changes his mind, just flip-flops.

Don’t get framed

And don’t blame only the Conservatives. On a swing through Southern Ontario, Dion offered these words: “We did not flip-flop, not at all,” bringing to mind Richard Nixon’s fateful words regarding his role in the Watergate case, “I am not a crook.” No sooner had those words entered the ether than he was eternally branded as a crook.

Dion’s advisors need to read George Lakoff’s book on framing, Don’t Think of an Elephant. If you say the word “elephant,” it’s impossible not to think of an elephant, Lakoff argues. Denying you are a flip-flopper simply reinforces the frame.

The Conservatives have gone to great effort to implant the frame in voters’ minds, attempting to define Dion for the voters before Dion does it himself. Harper kicked off the flip-flop campaign in the House of Commons during the debate over the extension of sunset provisions in the Anti-terrorism Act regarding preventive arrests and investigative hearings. The Liberals had enacted the law in 2001 and now Liberals were voting against an extension. This was a flip-flop of colossal proportions, he charged.

The accusations of Liberal flip-floppery were relentless, occurring 33 times over the next three weeks. Most were about the Anti-terrorism Act, but accusations of flip-flopping spread to Liberal policies on Kyoto and sending troops to Afghanistan. Harper himself most frequently used the term (five times), followed by Stockwell Day (four) and a clutch of Tory backbenchers (three each). Harper said, “…the Liberal Party had done a complete flip-flop on an issue that is of vital concern to the safety and security of Canadians…”; “We had the support of the leader of the Opposition until a couple of weeks ago when he abruptly flip-flopped his position on the issue…”; “…abruptly the leader of the Liberal Party flip-flopped on his support….”

CanWest picks up the beat

Parliament recessed on March 2, but by then the campaign had taken full flight in the media and on the Internet. Dion the flip-flopper was placed prominently on the Conservative Party’s home page. Under a banner showing Stephen Harper “getting things done for all of us,” was mounted the bodiless head of Dion on a blood-red background, interlaced with the words “flip flop flip….” The title read, “Dion’s Terror Flip Flop Exposes Weak Leadership.”

Aping the role of Fox News as the main cheerleader for the Bush administration, the Asper family’s right-wing bully pulpit, the National Post, led and broadened the campaign against Dion. One editorial attacked Bill C-257, which would outlaw replacement workers in strikes against employers in federally regulated industries. Liberal support for this bill, the Post hectored, “would mark another colossal flip flop of the kind the former governing party has become famous for since Stéphane Dion took over as leader last December.”

A week later, in a piece headlined “Liberals go from Dithers to Flipper,” Post columnist Don Martin weighed in with the assessment that Dion had a “lousy week.” Why? “Not once or twice, but three times in four days we saw Mr. Dion flip-flop on positions he’d taken during the leadership race or his party had supported last fall.” The column was apparently considered vital reading for all Canadians, since it was reprinted in the Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun and Ottawa Citizen.

And a few days after that, another Post editorial reminded readers of the “already long list of Liberal flip-flops, which includes…Afghanistan, the Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-257 … the rehabilitation of Adscam bagmen…and a carbon tax on fossil fuel consumption.” Whew!

CTV’s supporting act

A second vehicle for disseminating the flip-flop message was the nightly Mike Duffy Countdown segment on CTV, where the Conservative frame was provided a friendly welcome. Government whip Jay Hill led off by slamming “the flip-flop on Afghanistan, or the flip-flop now of the Anti-terrorism Act….”

Next, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day skewered Dion’s flip-flop on the anti-terrorism law and its implications for the Air India investigation. Jay Hill was back several days later, as the vote on the anti-terrorism law extension neared. Harper appeared the same evening, repeating the phrase “abruptly flip-flopped” he used twice in Parliament. Apparently, abrupt flip-flopping is worse than gradual flip-flopping.

Conservative strategist Roxanna Benoit couldn’t understand why Dion needed to flip-flop, Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilievre hoped Dion would flip-flop once again on the environment, and backbencher Garry Breitkreuz accused Dion of being like a fish out of water, going flip, flop, flip, flop, probably repeating the phrase for the benefit of slow learners in the audience.

And in a campaign-style speech Harper gave to 5,000 of the party faithful in Toronto on St. Patrick’s Day, Harper ended by complaining about “the flip-flops, the scandals and the empty rhetoric.”

If you Googled “Stéphane Dion” and “flip-flop” on Thursday, you got 12,600 hits (and no footwear). Not even the 10-to-one ratio you’d expect when comparing the two countries. If you did the same search on Sunday, 13,700 hits would be returned, 14,100 on Monday, and 15,700 on Tuesday.

It’s still early in the campaign and if the slur sticks as well with Canadian voters as it did with the Americans, expect to see a lot more flip-flops. Stéphane Dion will have a hard time explaining who he is to the Canadian voters. The Conservatives are already doing it for him.

First published in The Tyee.

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