The ways Harper and Ignatieff talk

Today’s meetings between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff have the potential to define their rivalry in a new way. One way to think about it is to consider the sorts of rhetoric they tend to employ.

Each has two main modes of public expression. Harper is either attacking or he’s claiming to speak common sense. Ignatieff is either striving to elevate the discourse or he’s appealing for calm.

The distinction is sharpest, of course, when Harper is attacking and Ignatieff is elevating. This is often the contrast that’s on display in the House, and I think Ignatieff generally comes off better when it is.

But in their dueling news conferences yesterday, Ignatieff shifted down into let’s-just-calm-down-here mode, and Harper countered with his let’s-be-sensible voice. These are similar tones, and Harper seems to gain an advantage when the debate is on this level.

Listen to the sensible Prime Minister on the subject of EI reforms: “Those kinds of changes and other major changes cannot be done on the back of an envelope in a few days.” What could be more reasonable?

Or when he’s characterizing Ignatieff’s proposal to create a national standard for EI eligibility (360 hours of work in the previous 52 weeks) as a mere ploy: “That’s a proposal designed to get the support of the NDP and Bloc. Mr. Ignatieff knows full well a Conservative government is never going to support such an irresponsible idea.”

With its weary undercurrent, that “knows full well” is good stuff. And, indeed, since Ignatieff backed off his EI demand, Harper’s point that the proposal never was serious policy, just a matter of parliamentary positioning, appeared to be confirmed.

To my ear, one problem with Ignatieff’s news conference outing was how he repeatedly fell back on defining himself instead of setting his terms. His opening move was fine: “We want parliament to work.” (Translation: everybody calm down.) “We want to replace confrontation with cooperation.” (Calm down, I said.)

Excellent. Now all he had to do was calmly explain what he would consider a working, cooperative parliament. But he didn’t. He asked four questions, never quite spelling out what answers Liberals would consider acceptable. When pressed, he lapsed repeatedly into remarking on his own qualities. “I’m pragmatic.” “I’m not a stubborn person.” Etc.

But the point is not what sort of guy Ignatieff is, it’s what sort of position his Liberals are staking out. He sounds too self-absorbed.

Think back to Ignatieff’s stronger National Press Theatre outing after the Conservative budget last January, in which he demanded regular budget update reports, especially on stimulus spending. “We’ve put down a very clear marker,” he said then. “If this government fails to meet these targets, it will not survive for long.”

That’s language with a lot better muscle tone than anything Ignatieff flexed yesterday. But he’ll get other chances this week to sound more persuasive again.

Ignatieff’s hour-long meeting this afternoon with Harper was deemed productive enough by both sides for another session to be planned for this evening. Sounds like some sort of deal might be taking shape.

Nothing wrong with that. As both Harper and Ignatieff have correctly pointed out, nobody wants an election just yet. The test, then, will be which leader finds the right words to sum up whatever comes out of their talks.

I’m guessing Harper will want to tell us that common sense has prevailed, and cast himself as the source of that sensibleness. For his part, Ignatieff will want to say that he calmly sorted out the situation, and everybody should calmly accept the compromise.

This won’t be either man in his other more revved-up rhetorical mode—Harper lashing out or Ignatieff reaching up. So we’ll have to judge the outcome by which politician succeeds in imposing his description, his language, on what has just happened.

First, who ends up sounding like he was in control during this week’s test? Second, whose way of talking about what they talked about leaves the other with the tougher road ahead?

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