Once again, that political God that has control over the mouths of candidates and their aides has thrown a foot-in-mouth lightning bolt at former Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign right after a big primary win.
This has become a pattern for the Romney campaign. And this time the political God did it in a way that allowed his opponent to immediately seize on high concept visuals — a prop. A prop that will limit Romney’s flexibility in the general election — and probably make a batch of money for a company that makes the prop.
The lightning bolt apparently struck top Romney adviser Eric Eric Fehrnstrom who stffed his foot in his mouth and in Romney’s with this mind-bloggingly let’s-give-em-an-opening comment on CNN that suggested Romney could totally start anew and discard his past positions, including assertions Romney made in an effort to woo conservative voters by moving further to the right:
HOST: Is there a concern that Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?
FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.
In fairness to Fehrnstrom, nomination victors do indeed traditionally move to the center once they win a nomination. Win a nomination requries winning the party’s base (Democrats need to win their liberal base; Republicans need to win their conservative base). Winning a general election means building a new winning coalition. The nature of a campaign dramatically does shift once it goes national versus primary.
But, politically, it was a quintessentially dumb comment to make given the nature of today’s politics and media configuration.
The comment immediately whipped through the new and old media and on Twitter — a fact preserved for media and political history by this Wall Street Journal roundup.
And — true to form, the Democrats and Romney’s rivals for the Republican Presidential nomination Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum pounced on the Etch a Sketch comment — quickly having aides get the toy so they could hold it up high, repeat the comment and warn how Romney could deep six conservative voters once he get the nomination and go moderate.
2012 has become a watershed. Never have we had an election where the word “moderate” is — to some in both parties — as dirty a political word as “Communist” or “extremist” was in the past. And never have we had an election where a toy has become a major news story that overshadowed a big political one (Romney’s impressive Illinois GOP primary win).
And never have we had a close aide of a Presidential wannabe so contrain a candidate’s future actions — or a toy so totally set in concrete the candidate’s future ability to move to the center.
The reason: Romney will now be called on any major movement from his current Republican primary positions:
The media will note major shifts and the Etch a Sketch will be brought up again if he tries to ease towards a major shift, for instance softening his primary rhetoric on immigration or issues that polls show have aroused the wrath of women voters.
Conservatives and conservative talk show hosts will note major shifts and Romney will have to either stick with the positions he has now or risk losing the enthusiasm of some conservative voters in the election.
Moderate and independent voters had begun to leave Romney as he has gone after conservative and Tea Party member Republicans. They already distrust him. If he tries to move to the center they may be skeptical, but if he tries and the media and conservatives call him on it, it’ll make his task of winning back these voters all the more difficult. If not impossible.
The Obama campaign is bound to use the Etch a Sketh in future ads. Indeed, the DNC quickly came up with this web ad:
Fehrnstrom’s comment was yet another sign of a Republican candidate not quite understanding how the news media now works in this age of Twitter, 24/7 news cycles, 24/7 political war rooms, blogs and cable and talk radio channels that get their best ratings when they cover controversies versus reporting stories on election return breakdowns that chronicle a political candidate’s positive political achievements. Santorum has shown no learning curve on his own polemics, which defused his surge and destroyed his real chance for the GOP nomination. And time after time after time the Romney campaign has proven itself to be a gaffe machine.
The Romney campaign tried to do damage control ASAP, after Romney first giving a testy response:
Seeking to quickly move on after one of his spokesman blotted out what should have been a banner day for his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney promised wary conservatives that he would not change course if he becomes the Republican nominee.
Speaking to reporters after a town hall meeting in Arbutus, Md., Romney clarified an aide’s statement that he would view the start of the general election campaign like an Etch-A-Sketch, suggesting that he could adjust positions he took in a primary campaign dominated by conservatives to please a more centrist electorate in November.
Asked whether Romney’s positions in the primary might be too far to the right to win in November, Eric Fehrnstrom said on CNN: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
Though Fehrnstrom was specifically asked about Romney’s political positions possibly changing, Romney portrayed the comments as being about his organization. Should he be the nominee, Romney said, the nature of the campaign certainly would change “organizationally.” But “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,” he said. “The policies and positions are exactly the same.”
The Romney campaign had hoped to spend the day talking about its double-digit triumph in Illinois on Tuesday and the endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. At a town hall meeting outside Baltimore, Romney sought to keep his focus on President Obama, mocking his trip out West to talk about energy prices.
Even if it wasn’t what his aide meant, the bottom line is this:
Unlike any other candidate in recent memory, Mitt Romney will now enjoy less flexibility in pivoting towards the country’s center once he wins the Republican nomination.
The goose is now cooked and no new ingredients can be added — or removed — before it’s presented to those sitting at the table in November.
Once again, the Obama campaign must be smiling. Conservative blogger Allahpundit of Hot Air calls it “a comment so stupidly vivid and vividly stupid given Romney’s vulnerabilities that it ends up being more effective than 99 percent of the attacks Santorum and Gingrich have lobbed at Mitt.” He goes on:
Yeah, that’s the killer. Before the campaign, I could imagine conservatives nominating Romney if he swore up and down that he’d be a right-wing warrior while in office. There’s always a chance that he’d be telling the truth and a chance is all you need to justify voting for a guy who stands the best chance of knocking out The One. But here’s one of his very top aides all but telling you that “severe conservatism” is rhetoric aimed at getting him through the primaries — and yet we’re going to go ahead and nominate him anyway. Think this is the guy who’s going to the mat as president if a Republican Congress gears up to advocate sorely needed yet unpopular spending cuts and fiscal reforms?
Attn. Mitt Romney: When you get to the general all eyes will be watching you. Your position changes used to elicit a kind of shrug from media types and voters as “ah there goes that old rascal once again.” It even inspired this joke from satirist Andy Borowitz: Q: Why doesn’t Mitt Romney have any sex scandals? A: He keeps changing positions.
But now your future movements are limited — as the makers of Etch a Sketch are bracing themselves for a hefty increase in sales.
UPDATE: MSNBC’s First Read’s take:
*** Not getting the benefit of the doubt: While the Romney campaign finds itself mired in yet another feeding frenzy over a top aide’s “Etch A Sketch” comment, it is important to take a step back here. One, Romney never said the remark (senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom did). And two, a lot more good for the campaign happened yesterday (aftermath of winning Illinois, getting Jeb Bush’s endorsement) than bad (“Etch A Sketch”). Yet the feeding frenzy highlights a bigger problem for Romney, especially as we begin transitioning to the general election: He gets almost no benefit of the doubt. Every gaffe becomes a story; every mistake become fodder for late-night comedians. And more importantly, this is what happens when you don’t have a solid base of support that can serve as a cocoon of protection during the toughest of times. Successful presidential candidates (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama) had grassroots supporters rushing to their defense, even in the toughest of political times. Romney — right now — doesn’t have this. In fact, it was notable during yesterday’s “Etch A Sketch” controversy that we didn’t see many prominent conservatives railing against media bias or unfairness. Instead, they were either standing on the sidelines or piling on. And that’s a problem for Romney.
Small things are also often seen by voters as a window into the true nature of a candidate or a campaign. It wasn’t that John Kerry ordered swiss cheese on his cheesesteak; it was that in so doing he proved he wasn’t a regular guy. It wasn’t that George H.W. Bush seemed to be amazed at a grocery scanner; it was that it affirmed that he was out of touch with the pocketbook concerns of regular people.
Which brings us back to the Etch-a-Sketch incident. What Fehrnstrom actually meant doesn’t matter at this point. The Etch a Sketch line will now have a life of its own that will continue to be a sore spot for Romney and his campaign for the foreseeable future. (Can you really see a scenario where Democrats drop it entirely? We can’t.)
One sentence about an Etch a Sketch isn’t going to decide whether Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee (he almost certainly will) or whether he can beat President Obama in the fall.
But, it’s one more piece of evidence that Democrats will use to paint Romney as a politician’s politician — willing to say whatever he thinks the audience he’s in front of wants to hear.
And that’s why it matters.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.