Etch A Sketch And The Permanent Campaign Silly Season
Yesterday, the campaign silly season got particularly silly.
Instead of spending yesterday talking about Mitt Romney’s win in Illinois, the fact that there’s really no logical reason for Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to stay in the race, or even President Obama’s
Energy Tour campaign swing through the Southwest, the political media spent yesterday talking about a 50 year old toy:
Rick Santorum doesn’t care about the unemployment rate. Mitt Romney likes to fire people and doesn’t care about the very poor.
And Eric Fehrnstrom thinks he can recreate Romney from zero like an Etch A Sketch drawing, with general election voters none the wiser.
A senior Romney adviser, Fehrnstrom on Wednesday became the latest presidential campaign personality to stumble sideways into a classic 2012 gaffe: saying something that he didn’t quite mean to say, which played into a terrible preexisting perception of his candidate.
On national television this morning, Fehrnstrom fumbled by arguing that the 2012 race would reset after the Republican primary, likening it to an Etch A Sketch toy in which pictures get erased and redrawn at will.
Except Fehrnstrom’s language wasn’t quite so precise and it was unclear whether the Etch A Sketch was supposed to represent the 2012 political landscape or the candidate for which he works. What Fehrnstrom literally said was: “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 we start all over again.”
And with that, the Romney adviser triggered a now-familiar 2012 ritual, as opponents piled on with outrage, Romney’s staff circled the wagons and the press hyped the gaffe — which reminded the audience of Romney’s malleability — to epic proportions. By Wednesday afternoon, Etch A Sketch was a trending topic on Twitter.
Romney’s rivals in the Republican primary were especially gleeful over the remark: both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, following large losses to Romney in Tuesday’s Illinois primary, brandished Etch A Sketches at campaign events to raise the alarm about Romney’s political pliancy.
“Gov. Romney’s staff, they don’t even have the decency to wait until they get the nomination to explain to us how they’ll sell us out,” Gingrich declared. “I think having an Etch A Sketch as your campaign model, raises every doubt about where we’re going.”
Santorum’s campaign took things even further, dispatching national press secretary Alice Stewart to hand out Etch A Sketches at a Romney event in Maryland. In Louisiana, Santorum compared Romney unfavorably to the framers of the U.S. Constitution.
“Imagine had Mitt Romney been around at the time we were drafting our Constitution. He would just shake it and just shook it up after it was approved to rewrite it,” Santorum said.
Democrats, meanwhile, did everything they could to exploit the controversy. The Democratic National Committee and the independent group American Bridge blasted out web videos reveling in a ready-made metaphor for Romney’s political fecklessness.
“While extraordinarily cynical, this candid admission of Gov. Romney’s general election strategy to mislead the American people does at least have the benefit of truth,” Bill Burton, strategist for the Obama super PAC Priorities USA, said in a statement. “There is no doubt Gov. Romney is going to try to mask his right-wing, anti-middle class agenda in order to win the election.”
Here’s the video of what Eric Fehrnstrom said yesterday that started this whole controversy:
You can judge for yourself what it was that Fehrnstrom was trying to say, but from my perspective it seems clear that he was talking about the rather obvious fact that once a primary campaign is over and you begin the General Election campaign, you really are talking about a whole new ball game. The issues and message that you concentrate on in appealing to primary voters is going to be very different from the one you refine for the General Election, and the message in a primary election may even vary from state to state as the race progresses. That, it seems to me, is what he was trying to express here, but because it played into the pre-existing meme of Romney as a flip-flopper, and because we live in a digital age where 30 seconds of airtime on an early morning CNN program that hardly anyone watches can go around the world in a minute, we spent all day yesterday on an Etch A Sketch meme.
By later afternoon Twitter and the blogosphere were full of attack ads and mocking tweets featuring Etch A Sketch’s some of which were, admittedly, funny. Romney’s Republican opponents jumped on the meme fairly quickly too. And everyone was laughing about it on the morning shows this morning. But I have to wonder, why did was an entire day on the campaign trial wasted over a comment by a campaign aide, not the candidate himself, that took up about 7 seconds? Are people really saying that Romney’s campaign should be judged by one off-hand remark by this campaign aide which was made during a live television interview, and which is probably being misinterpreted by those with a partisan agenda? And why did the political press and the blogosphere spend an entire day on what is essentially a nonsense story?
There are several obvious answers, of course. With political campaigns at the national level now a 365/24/7 affair that plays out not just on television and in print, but also on the Internet, including websites like Think Progress that quickly picked up the clip and ran with it. Yea, it was a fun little diversion for the afternoon, but it accomplished absolutely nothing, and as I said it really doesn’t tell us anything about Romney’s campaign. Gaffes happen all the time in campaigns and some are more serious than others, but it seems like now the ones that get the most attention are the ones that are just downright silly, and that’s where this one falls in my estimation. It’s right up there (or down there) with Obama’s “57 states” comment, which people on the right still absurdly point to as if it proves that Barack Obama is dumb enough to think that there are 57 states, some even point to it as proof that he’s a Muslim because there are 57 nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Just as the 57 states comment told us nothing about Barack Obama, this Etch A Sketch comment is just a ridiculously stupid diversion.
There are calls today that Fehrnstrom should be fired. Perhaps it’s true that Romney’s campaign needs a communications reboot and that means bringing in a new Communications Director. However, firing him over one stupid comment that got stupidly blown out of proportion strikes me as ridiculous. Instead, how about we start focusing on the important issues?
Photo via Talking Points Memo
I think it became a “furor” because it was just too resonant a metaphor for Mitt Romney to pass up.
To Republicans, this IS an important issue. Because one of Romney’s main guy just admitted what they’ve been thinking all along — that Romney’s just been putting out all the conservative lines because that’s what they want to hear, and he’ll revert to being a “moderate” as soon as he’s got their nomination locked up.
This isn’t like Romney saying “I like to fire people” or “I know many fine owners of Nascar teams,” which reveal a little of his personality, but have no real relevance. This seems to be a top Romney operative admitting that the candidate of the primary is a lie. How is this not important?
This is all true. The reason you don’t just come out and SAY that, however, is that it’s morally repellent to most people. It’s just icky. Say one thing to one group, say another to another group… yeah, I know: politics. But everyone basically hates politics, and that’s a big part of why.
It’s not very smart to rub their noses in it, especially when your candidate already has a reputation as a plastic man.
@Rob in CT:
Part of the problem is the at least 75% of poltiical”news” on cable news are process stories, not about issues. Fehrnstrom was talking process.
Actually they spent most of yesterday talking about not a toy but about an emblematic moment in Romney’s campaign. Essentially Fehrnstrom let slip what lies at the hearrt of Romney’s pursuit of the presidency. Total lack of any political principle whatever. For months people like David Frum have been saying there was no need to pay any attention to Romney’s crazier statements because after all everyone knew he was lying. Well Fehrnstrom at the heart of Romney’s campaign just confirmed it. As usual Doug you trot out the Obama also makes gaffes defense for what was one of the defining moments in Romney’s campaign. Nice try, but in popular inconography he’s the etch a sketch man who likes to fire people and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.
I’m confused. Are we still supposed to believe that Doug is NOT a Romney supporter, or can we now dispense with that pretense?
That’s the punchline a bunch of ads are going to be written around.
Certainly the Obama campaign already has dozens of instances where Romney has changed his position to suit the situation qeued up and ready to go. Now they have been given the “hook” they need.
Not to be hyperbolic…but Ferhnstrom may very well have lost the race for Romney yesterday.
If Romney does get tattooed as a flip-flopper…which he absolutely deserves to be tattooed as…Ferhnstrom gave a great deal of aid and comfort to the enemy.
I have to take issue with the tone of your post.
Romney was out yesterday talking about Bush saving the economy…which is an interesting spin considering how many Republicans hate TARP and have amnesia about Bush’s role in TARP. You, however, didn’t post anything on it.
There’s a quote from Romney from ’06 that surfaced yesterday where Romney defends gas prices and says: “…“I don’t think that now is the time, and I’m not sure there will be the right time, for us to encourage the use of more gasoline…I’m very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay…” This is a far different tune than what he’s saying on the trail today.
So there are two items related to important economic issues.
For you to now post an item lamenting that we spent all this time on the etch-a-sketch and not on issues seems an indicator of something. You decide what it is indicative of.
Rather than the “57 states” stumble, this is being treated like the Joe the Plumber “spread the wealth around” out of context misinterpretation.
The minute I heard about this, I knew that Fehrnstrom had to be talking about the difference between conducting a primary campaign and a general election campaign. What’s unfortunate is that Romney does seem to invite a personal comparison to the Pointy-Haired Boss’ laptop.
Like that Biden gaffe from yesterday?
@WR: News flash: noted lying sack lies another sackful.
Romney never said “I like to fire people.” Romney’s actual words: ““I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
In other words, Romney opposes the socialist’s dream: that one is “entitled” to a job, regardless of actual performance. That no one can ever be fired, ever, for any reason. Romney here declares that he favors choice (of the employer), accountability, and upholding standards (see full context).
Thank God that the only apparent occupant of WR-Land is WR. Too bad he can’t stay there all the time, instead of sneaking into the real world on occasion.
This resonated because it confirmed what everyone already knew – Romney’s only ideology is he should be president. As silly as that ideology may be at least we know that Santorum has one. Rather than an ideology Gingrich has an overinflated ego.
Look, all the Etch-a-Sketch thing does is confirm what a lot of people think about Romney: That he’s got more postitions than $50 dollar whore.
And yet another accusation against an Obama opponent fits Obama even better…
“I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” — Barack Obama, prologue, The Audacity of Hope (Title taken from a sermon by Reverend Jeremiah Wright)
All candidates move to the center for the general election…….they just aren’t as dumb as the Romney team is and come out and say it.
He simply gave Obama an easy ad.
So only a “lying sack” would treat those two formulations as essentially interchangeable, and put quote marks around “I like to fire people?” Then I guess Rick Perry is a “lying sack” (link). And Jonah Goldberg is also a “lying sack,” twice over (link, link).
What a shame that it’s so easy to find prominent Republicans who fit your definition of “lying sack.”
“Not to be hyperbolic…but Ferhnstrom may very well have lost the race for Romney yesterday.
If Romney does get tattooed as a flip-flopper…which he absolutely deserves to be tattooed as…Ferhnstrom gave a great deal of aid and comfort to the enemy.”
I’d take the second as correct, but not the first. Romney himself already gave enough ammunition for Obama there.
If Obama wins, history will notice that two of the people who helped him the most are Rush “slut/prostitute” Limbaugh and Eric “Etch a Sketch” Ferhnstrom.
Nonsense. In the instant case, it’s Romney himself who is projecting an ever changing, ever changeable persona onto the public screen. The guy is the Proteus of modern politics. Which fact you’d acknowledge if you were less interested in eristics.
The story was kept in the news yesterday because an Etch-a-Sketch is a toy. It’s cute, it’s red, everyone thinks of them fondly. When programming for dumb masses (slur those two words together, by the way, for full effect), you can’t miss with a cute red toy.
Oh, and many of my friends are owners of Hot Wheels cars, not NASCAR teams.
Willard’s well known lack of principles may actually help him in the general election, when people start paying attention, see ads and clips of him in the primaries saying crazy sh.t, and dismiss it as “well, of course he didn’t really mean that, he just had to tell those people that”.
It will be interesting to see if the Obama campaign can thread the needle to paint Willard as a serial liar with no philosophical core, who might just do the crazy sh.t he promised in the primaries.
Not just a flip-flipper, not just untrustworthy, but a man with no principles beholden to the crazy wing of the crazy party.
Live by the soundbite, die by the soundbite.
Yeah, Fehrnstrom…..what about the issues, man?
(Can “silly season” last an entire election year?)
Oops, more bad news. People who fit the Jenos definition for “lying sack” also include Bill O’Reilly, along with Fox hosts Greg Gutfeld and Brian Kilmeade.
Jenos, you need to get busy telling all those folks why you think they’re a “lying sack.”
Doug is not now nor ever has been a supporter of the Republican party. LOL. Apart from this rather transparent subterfuge what I find so interesting/amusing about him given that he is obviously a bright guy and very interested in politics is that he seems to have no grasp of the importance of symbology and theater in the politic process. And then there are the relentless double standards. Old Biden indulges in a bit of routine hyperbole and it’s big deal for days while a Romney aide makes a Freudian slip that say’s it all about Romney’s campaign and it’s a ridiculously stupid diversion
Saletan wrote an amazing piece about Romney and abortion a few weeks back in Slate. It is carefully researched, thoughtful, analytical, and the absolute best of what political reporting is supposed to be. Its conclusion, ultimately, is that Romney has been an Etch-A-Sketch on abortion.
The statement is devastating because it is so accurate of the man’s career. If Santorum’s communications director said this, it wouldn’t have lasted an hour because whatever else Santorum is, it is clear that he will not change principles the way most people change clothes.
Similarly, this example shows why Republican criticisms of Obama have failed to damage him during this election – they don’t bear enough resemblance to reality. Saying he hates America and pals around with terrorists and bows to kings just doesn’t match with what we’ve seen everyday for the last five years he has been on the national stage. The teleprompter cracks don’t make sense in light of his debates with Clinton and McCain and his fileting of the entire House Republican caucus without a prompter or notes.
Romney is a man who has described himself as a progressive, more friendly to gay rights than Ted Kennedy, committed to keeping Massachusetts pro-choice, and who consistently called the health care law he passed the cornerstone of his term as governor. But as soon as the audience for his ambitions change, he doesn’t just move on to other issues that will play better, he completely erases everything he ever said or did.
Every politician shades his topics to match the crowd; every politician figures out how to answer the question he’d prefer rather than the one he was actually asked. That’s part of the game. But with most politicians, we get to see a core objective where they would rather lose fighting for that objective than give up to win. For Obama, it was healthcare. For Bush, it was tax cuts for the wealthy and ousting Saddam. What is it for Romney? The fear has been all along that there wasn’t anything beyond his ambition. His spokesman came out and basically confirmed that fear.
One other reason this is especially devastating – nobody will have his back. If he came out and said something about immigration that might be embarrassing, then one side or the other would be able to come out and support the substance of what was said. But with this thing, it is difficult to see who can defend him. He is playing one side or the other for suckers, and nobody wants to be the sucker. And so everyone lets him twist in the wind.
The problem with the election spin cycle is not so much its 24/7 nature. The real problem is the demographic characteristics of the people doing the spinning and then eating up the spin, specifically their respective ages, levels of education, occupations and experiences.
Political reporting and the political discourse have become fatuous, vacant and frivolous because the people doing the reporting and their most ardent consumers are fatuous, vacant and frivolous. They’re young. Poorly educated. They lack real-world experience. To the extent they’re even employed their chosen occupations are of talking rather than doing, ephemeral and not lasting, theoretical in lieu of utilitarian, abstract rather than concrete. To be more blunt out it, virtually the entire media and to a large extent the chattering classes consist of a bunch of immature airheads with far too much time on their hands acting out like spoiled children, which, not coincidentally, to a substantial degree is what they are.
Separately, I’ll skip over the nonsensical comments by Gingrich’s and Santorum’s teams, for the simple reason that to pay them any further attention at this stage of the process is tantamount to spending time discussing whether Green Bay will repeat as Super Bowl champion.
Lastly, as far as Romney is concerned, the people who will decide November’s election are not on Twitter, they don’t read blogs, they don’t listen to NPR, they don’t watch CNN, they don’t obsess over politics, and they don’t get caught up in the tit-for-tat absurdities of the election spin cycles. They’re middle-class adults with families living in places like the Cincinnati suburbs, Orlando, Fla., and in the suburbs of Richmond, VA. They’re too busy worrying about putting food on the table and paying for college to be worried about Etch-a-Sketches.
Obamacare = Romneycare.
Romney has to play up his opposition to Obama’s health care plan. This will make him look incredibly ridiculous and transparent. It’s the job of people like Doug and his betters out in the pundit ether to start the groundwork for a defense of Romney by proclaiming all mention of this obvious truth to be silly.
@Tsar Nicholas: “a bunch of immature airheads with far too much time on their hands acting out like spoiled children, which, not coincidentally, to a substantial degree is what they are.”
That description certainly applies to a particular section of our politics, just not the one Tsar Nicholas intends.
As opposed to your august personage?
I mean, c’mon. Do you even realize that you come off as a pompous ass when you post?
Re: the actual topic of the post,
The reason this is a big deal – and that it’s not just ‘silly season’ stuff – is that it isn’t the Dems who are flipping out over this, it’s the conservative base. Read the comment sections of any major Conservative website and you will see a strong internecine warfare breaking out, between those who know the GOP is screwed with Romney (he’s either going to lose or he’s going to betray them at first opportunity) and those who berate the other group for not falling into line like good little soldiers who have nowhere else to turn.
This is one of Romney’s prime weaknesses. He cannot afford to lose even a SINGLE percentage point of support that McCain had four years ago, and have any hope of winning this Fall. He needs the coalition to hold together, to donate, and to volunteer. Statements like this make the base question why they should even bother, and that’s absolutely deadly for Romney at this point.
This is what I’ve been trying to tell people: these candidates and the president are all (except Paul) programmed, controlled, scripted. Controlled by world financial/government groups that seek a EU type arrangement in this country.
This from a guy who thinks QE is spending.
Exactly. This really is about the GOP relationship with reality. Recall this:
Consider these two statements:
A) It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again
B) We create our own reality
Those two statements are quite congruent. They both reflect the same underlying philosophy: facts and truth don’t matter. All that matters is power and the pursuit of power, and lying is just a natural part of the process. That’s how we end up with big, big lies, like the way we were lied (yes, lied) into war.
The problem is that reality always wins in the end, and even stupid people eventually develop some capacity to realize that their friends who are liars are eventually going to lie to them, too. And that liars need to be tuned out. So the Base is now tuning out Romney, but they’re just getting what they deserve. For years, they’ve been enthusiastically encouraging and rewarding liars, so Mitt is the natural culmination of their efforts. No surprise that he lies to everyone, including and especially them. Karma: “God is very fair and gives you exactly what you deserve.”
As a highly accomplished liar, Romney is quintessentially Republican, and really the perfect candidate. He’s a terrific embodiment of the core GOP philosophy: the truth doesn’t matter. And that’s essentially what Ferhnstrom said: the truth doesn’t matter.
You’re exactly right that most people are overwhelmed and have very little attention to spare. But that’s exactly why this story is important. The inadvertent brilliance of Ferhnstrom is that he created a simple, universal image that communicates something about Romney that is both deeply true and deeply important. Between now and 11/6, virtually every voter is going to be exposed to that image. For most, it will be multiple times. And even though they are not paying close attention, the message will reach them, because that’s what a powerful symbol does: it packs a lot of meaning into a simple thing, and it communicates that meaning in an instant.
Joe mentioned “the importance of symbology and theater.” This is how mass communications works. A simple symbol that communicates this essential Romney character flaw has more power than a zillion dry graphs and charts with data about unemployment and debt.
Ferhnstrom’s background is in advertising, which is all about packing a lot of meaning into a simple symbol, image or message. So it’s natural that his brain produced this brilliant, powerful image.
The Fox News effect explained in just a few words…
The Obama Campaign is going to have a field day turning out ads about Mittens…
Yeah, but will it be process under discussion when Romney starts his new campaign w/ completely different policies?
whatever else Santorum is, it is clear that he will not change principles the way most people change clothes
Those aren’t principles that Santorum has, they are pre-Enlightenment religious delusions. Even harder to change than ideology.
@M. Bouffant: Just because you don’t like them doesn’t make them “principles.” Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Islamists also have principles, too — and are usually good about adhering to them.
They’re principles most people find abhorrent, but they are principles nonetheless.
FWIW, I have no problem with a pompous ass who knows what he’s talking about. My problem with him is that he’s a pompous ass who doesn’t understand that he doesn’t understand the things he’s pretending to understand.
This is the bottom line – in his attempt to side-step the question, Romney’s adviser is being torched (and rightfully so) for providing the wrong answer to the question that was asked! Yes, I do believe his answer was about the campaigning process – NOT about Romney. However, the question asked was about Romney and how was he going to adjust from a far right run primary into a nominee running for president. In Fehrnstrom’s attempt to side step this question (knowing the political gatcha undertones of the question itself), he rather unsuccessfully side-stepped the question with an answer that only reinforced the underlying perseption of Romney, hence, the root reason why the question was being asked in the first place. I absolutely hate it when politicans side-step questions. They do it all the time. This time, however, Fehrnstrom unwittingly gave away the “media meat” and gave the media what it was looking for in his attempt to provide the usual “politically correct” answer! I think its quite funny!!!