The framing of Stéphane Dion

The Conservative party's efforts to frame Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion as 'not a leader' will long be remembered as a textbook example of successfully establishing an image of a politician.

It all began on Super Bowl Sunday, 2007. While Canadian fans were watching the Colts battle the Bears for American football supremacy, they were treated to a rather extraordinary commercial. It was not like the usual high-end Super Bowl ads for computers, beer and soft drinks. This was a political ad. And remarkably, there wasn't even an election underway.

A Tory ad, titled Stéphane Dion is not a leader, is shown in Ottawa on Jan. 28, 2007. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

The ad featured a clip from one of the all-candidates' debates held during the recently completed Liberal leadership campaign. Stéphane Dion was being challenged by his opponent Michael Ignatieff over the Liberal record on the environment. 

"Stéphane, we didn't get it done," Ignatieff proclaimed. "We didn't get it done." 

"This is unfair," Dion complained. "Do you think it's easy to set priorities?"

The camera cuts to a shot of Ignatieff laughing at Dion's answer. A voice is then heard intoning: "Leaders set priorities. Leaders get things done. Stéphane Dion is a not a leader." Then, in a slightly lower volume and with a faster-paced read, viewers hear: "This message brought to you by the Conservative party in Canada." 

Never before had a Canadian federal party launched this kind of pre-election attack against one of its opponents. And Super Bowl ads don't come cheap. So what was going on? 

To understand the answer to that question, you have to understand the art and science of political framing. Few people outside the world of political spin-doctoring have heard about framing in its political context, but it is critically important in determining which issues will gain traction with the electorate, and which politicians will emerge triumphant on election day.

And the Conservative party's efforts to frame Dion as "not a leader," which began on that Super Bowl Sunday in 2007, will long be remembered as a textbook example of successful framing.

Don't think of an elephant

 The man who is perhaps most responsible for introducing the idea of framing into politics is George Lakoff. Until 2004, he was an obscure but highly respected linguistics professor at the University of California – Berkeley. Then he wrote a book called Don't Think of an Elephant that became a bible for political consultants on both sides of the U.S. partisan divide.

The book's title lies at the core of Lakoff's theory of framing. If he were to ask you to not think of an elephant, you wouldn't be able to do it, because in order to not think of an elephant, you have to think of an elephant. In Lakoff's view, our brains are hard-wired to think in terms of frames. Our frame for an elephant is a large mammal with a trunk, floppy ears and large, stubby legs. We have no way of thinking about an elephant that doesn't involve us evoking that image. 

The same idea works for politicians. A politician's frame is what the public thinks when they conjure up an image of that politician. It could be positive, like Jean Chrétien, who was framed as "the little guy from Shawinigan" long after he ceased to be that, or negative, like Paul Martin's "Mr. Dithers."  But once a frame has been established, it becomes very difficult to change.  "Frame development," Lakoff has written, " takes time and work." 

And that's why it is so important to be the first to get your frame established. "Frame yourself," the political spin doctors like to say, "or others will establish the frame for you."

Which is precisely what was happening in that Conservative party Super Bowl ad. When Dion won the Liberal leadership in December 2006, he was as frameless a political leader as Canadians had seen in a long time. Most people had no idea who he was. And the Liberals were slow to fill the void.

Conservative party strategists saw a small window of opportunity to hang an unflattering frame around Dion's neck: He was a weak leader, a man who couldn't set priorities. The visual image would be the Liberal leader forever frozen in a confused, feckless shrug. In this frame, Dion became a cartoon-like character, most closely resembling the Yiddish comic archetype of the schlemiel. 

The schlemiel is a clumsy loser, a blunderer, a guy who can never quite get his act together. If you want to see a schlemiel in action, watch George Costanza on Seinfeld. And in the ads that the Conservatives have produced since Super Bowl Sunday 2007, this is how they have tried to frame Dion. 

Connection to reality

Because here's another thing that could only happen to a schlemiel. He'd be standing in an empty field, a bird would fly overhead and his droppings would make a direct hit on him. Sound familiar?         

Of course, frames can only stick if they have some connection to reality, and had Dion been able to display tough, determined leadership as leader of the Opposition, the schlemiel frame would likely not have endured. Instead, he spent much of the past year reinforcing it; huffing and puffing about how Conservative policies are ruining the country and then meekly standing up in the Commons to vote in favour of those same policies in order to avoid an election. The Conservatives took a gamble on Dion, and it appears to have paid off handsomely.

Now, the Liberals are trying to establish a new frame for their leader.  On their website, you can see him playing floor hockey (and scoring a goal), hiking, fishing and skiing. And interestingly, all these very un-schlemiel like images are presented inside wooden picture frames. 

Is it too late for Dion? According to Lakoff, "the truth alone will not set you free. It has to be framed correctly." But, Lakoff argues, "reframing requires a rewiring of the brain," and that requires "an investment of time, effort and money." 

The challenge for Liberals in trying to shake the frame that the Conservatives have hung on their leader is that they are short of time, and have less money to spend than their opponents. That's why the odds are that Stéphane the Schlemiel will not be going away any time soon.