Spin Cycle

Sketching a Shapeless Romney: Fallout from a Top Aide’s ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ Remark

Mitt Romney was riding high after his Illinois victory when a top adviser made the colossal blunder of comparing him to a children’s game.

The Etch-a-Sketch image erases the rave reviews that Romney was starting to garner for winning a big-state primary, and wiped off the screen his carefully timed announcement that Jeb Bush is endorsing him.

In a phrase so potentially damaging it might have been hatched in a laboratory by James Carville, Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom bobbled a routine question on CNN about whether Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich “might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election.”

His response: “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.”The unmistakable image: Romney has no fixed principles. Forget about what he’s saying in the primaries, all we have to do is hit the reset button. His positions are no more firmly held than the leaden particles that form those boxy images on the screen and then dissolve with a mere shake.

With one brand name from the pre-digital age, Fehrnstrom has managed to revive every stereotype of Romney as a closet moderate who is pandering to the Republican right solely for the purpose of securing the nomination. I’m sure Fehrnstrom regrets using those words, but the video can be endlessly replayed.

The topic exploded on Twitter, where the Romney ridicule was rife. Said @Indecision: “The biggest difference between Mitt Romney and an Etch A Sketch? Etch A Sketches are actually popular.”

The Democratic National Committee blitzed reporters with an e-mail featuring Romney’s face on a red Etch-a-Sketch with the mocking words, “Man of Consistency.” Santorum’s campaign sent out its own blast about the “shocking” video, with the title: “Like an Etch a Sketch...Team Romney Admits Their Candidate Will Change Positions in the General Election.”

Did Romney actually change a position? Nope. All that happened was that his spokesman misspoke. But in today’s sound-bite culture, the story can echo for days—this at a time when many journalists were finally willing to admit that Romney had the race all but wrapped up. And it plays to the negative narrative about Romney because he has changed his stance on such issues as abortion and is still laboring to explain how his Massachusetts health plan differs from Obamacare.

Is it fair? Not especially. The flap is reminiscent of Romney saying he didn’t care about the very poor, or Santorum saying he didn’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be: both out-of-context statements that nonetheless captured a certain political clumsiness.

But metaphors matter in political campaigns. When John Kerry said he had voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it, he helped cement his image as a flip-flopper—aided by the Bush campaign, which used footage of the senator windsurfing to show him tacking in opposite directions.

Etch-a-Sketch enables young children to create any shape they want. Little wonder that Romney’s rivals are feverishly working the dials, trying to depict him as a politician of no fixed shape.