Romney Etch A Sketch: Is aide's comment a present for his foes?

A Romney aide said that for the fall campaign, the candidate could hit the reset button, making the comparison to how the toy works. But the Romney Etch A Sketch comment may not be remembered for long. 

Steven Senne/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses an audience during a campaign stop at an American Legion post in Arbutus, Md., Wednesday.

Has Mitt Romney’s campaign inadvertently provided opponents the perfect phrase with which to attack the former Massachusetts governor? That’s the question in the wake of the “Etch A Sketch” comment by senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom on CNN.

Asked whether Mr. Romney had moved too far to the right for the general election, Mr. Fehrnstrom said that the GOP hopeful would hit a reset button for the fall campaign. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch,” he said. “You can kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.”

For Romney, Sketch-gate has overshadowed what should have been the triumphant aftermath of an Illinois primary victory. Romney’s primary opponents immediately seized upon the image of an erasable toy to project their doubts about the depths of Romney’s conservatism. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich held up Etch A Sketches at rallies on Wednesday.

“Team Romney says if Mitt is GOP nominee, he’ll hit reset button for gen election. Where does that leave conservatives?” tweeted Mr. Santorum on Thursday.

Conservative activists who have long resisted Romney’s likely nomination bemoaned the fact that it is only now, so late in the game, that they have found an analogy that perfectly expresses their doubts about his beliefs.

“We’ve been at a loss to encapsulate our opposition into a one-liner; a bumper sticker,” wrote Daniel Horowitz on the conservative RedState blog on Thursday. “After all, it takes copious pages of ink to explain the extent of Romney’s hypocrisy on the issue of healthcare alone. Yet, late in the 11th hour of the campaign, when it’s probably too late to make a difference, we have finally discovered our symbol that exemplifies Romney.”

If nothing else, perhaps now the Romney team will stop demanding that the right get on board their train and provide some reasons to believe that Romney’s conservative positions won’t get shaken off like a kid's drawing in September, Mr. Horowitz said.

Meanwhile, gleeful Democrats were making much the same point about the power of the Etch A Sketch image.

On the blog of liberal talk-show host Rachel Maddow, contributor Steve Benen wrote that Romney aide Fehrnstrom should simply have said, “Romney is a mainstream conservative, and there’s nothing extreme about his vision for America.”

Instead, he’s hampered Romney with a line that will be tough to live down, according to Mr. Benen.

“It’s the kind of line that reinforces the worst possible fears about Mitt Romney’s entire candidacy – he doesn’t even care what he’s saying to voters right now, because it’ll all be thrown out the window in a few months anyway,” he writes.

Wow. Both left and right agree: The Etch A Sketch thing is deadly. So they must be right, right?

Well, only if the general election were, say, this week. That’s our theory, and we’re sticking with it.

Yes, small things can quickly become big things in today’s political news cycle, which moves at the speed of iPad apps. Make one small slip and the next thing you know, you’ve got a full-blown flap on your hands. Voters are prone to think that small things such as the Etch A Sketch comment provide them a window into the real life of candidates, writes Chris Cillizza in his The Fix blog at The Washington Post.

But what enters the news cycle can exit it just as fast, pushed out by the latest juicy gaffelet. Three words will illustrate our point: Santorum Satan speech. Remember when that was going to sink his candidacy? Oh ... right. He is now pretty far behind, but we’d argue that it wasn’t the speech per se that made him lose Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois after leading polls in all three states.

We’re big believers in the Feiler Faster theory, created some years ago by writer Bruce Feiler. It holds that the increasing pace of the news cycle is matched by the public’s ability to process and inculcate new bits of information. So the whole process is speeded up, including the getting-over-it part.

We agree with the eminent pundit Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ incident is going in my next issue of ‘Feeding Frenzy’. Sound & fury signifying very little,” Mr. Sabato tweeted Thursday.

He also complained about the Etch A Sketch getting “dragged thru mud” in the whole affair.

“Big part of my childhood," he wrote on his Twitter account. "Proved to me I had no artistic talent.”

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