Is Romney the Etch-a-Sketch candidate? Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pindec/6201244928/
Mitt Romney’s longtime aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, may have just scored this campaign season’s worst own goal after he described this year’s race to an Etch-a-Sketch, the child’s drawing toy that can be shaken to erase what’s on its surface – and gave Romney’s opponents a most apt metaphor to describe the GOP nomination frontrunner.
Now, as the media storm whirls, sales of the toy have soared and it threatens to become just as symbolic and potentially campaign-ruining as, say, flip-flops were to Sen. John Kerry and combat helmets to Gov. Mike Dukakis. As Julie Hirschfield Davis explained at Bloomberg, “The comment… played into his presidential adversaries’ assessments of Romney as a shape-shifting politician who switches policy positions to court voters. Democrats and Republicans alike rushed to procure the red plastic tablet with white knobs to brandish at campaign events, on television and in Internet videos as a visual to drive home their contention that Romney can’t be trusted.”
Fehrnstrom, describing the upcoming autumn campaign as an Etch-a-Sketch on CNN.
So, just how apt a metaphor is the Etch-a-Sketch? And how much political hay can his opponents make while the sun shines?
Romney responds. After initially trying to ignore reporters’ questions about whether he was himself like an Etch-A-Sketch in his political positions, Romney relented, explaining that after the primary, his positions and policies won’t change. “Organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile,” Romney said, clarifying the point the Ferhnstrom appeared to be trying to make in the clip. “The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same. I’m running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I’ll be running as a conservative Republican nominee.”
Too late. The damage, of course, was already done, as both Democrats and Romney’s Republican opponents piled on: Rick Santorum suggested that the US would do better to stick with President Barack Obama than the “Etch-a-Sketch candidate” Romney, while Newt Gingrich went him one better and put together a website featuring an Etch-a-Sketched Romney that can be reset to reveal his allegedly shifting positions.
Will Romney be able to shake this (pun intended)? Maybe, maybe not. Bloomberg’s Davis spoke to several strategists who agreed that this was “a potentially unshakable image that encapsulates the chief criticism of his candidacy”. “The power of metaphor is the moment that’s bigger than the moment itself — it’s the one instance that tells you the whole story — and that’s what this was,” Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated with a campaign, told her.
But is this a missed opportunity for rivals? Nate Silver at The New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog thinks yes: The gaffe will serve to remind voters of a major flaw in Romney’s campaign, that he has “substantially altered his positions on a wide range of issues since he ran for governor in Massachusetts in 2002”. Said Silver, “[H]is rival campaigns have a lot of ammunition to work with. And yet, they have rarely been able to make much of it.” Even Ron Paul, who has perhaps the most consistent voting record of any candidate in living memory, has gone easy on Romney; this is because, Silver argued, the other candidates don’t have quite the well-oiled machine or the money that Romeny has. “[T]he only campaign that might have the skills and resources necessarily to fully exploit them is Barack Obama’s, which Mr. Romney will probably be facing in November.”
An ‘unfortunate metaphor’ – and time for Romney to get serious. After first noting that the Etch-a-Sketch metaphor reminded her a bit of then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan explained that it’s “not fatal that Mr. Romney has been tagged as Etch A Sketchy”. But it is time for Romney to “[s]uit up and get serious,” she said. “Now that everyone knows you’ll be the nominee, get off the goofball express. Cheesy grits, jeans, singing, being compulsively pleasant, calling your opponents lightweights—enough. Use the next few months to get back to basics. Why do you want to be president again? Is the answer, ‘Because I’m a great fellow and it’s the top job’? Dig down deep for a better reason!”
Romeny is changeable, but is that so bad? Romney does seem to take a certain amount of glee in being shaken like an Etch-a-Sketch, changing up his political picture, but that needn’t necessarily be a failing, The Economist’s Democracy in America blog noted. “I don’t believe Mr Romney is really less principled than his opponents. Because they’ve all succeeded in politics, we know they’ve all moved freely in the ample space between their few truly fixed principles. The real difference may be that Mr Romney is more easy with the idea of a dogma that adapts, more alert to the living message of the daily polls.”
More on the 2012 election
- Mitt Romney takes Illinois, Santorum’s run halted?
- GOP race: The latest
- Santorum wins Mississippi, Alabama
- Romney wins Arizona, Michigan