The Mitt Romney presidential campaign has been unusually full of sitcom analogies this election season. Earlier, Romney compared opponent Newt Gingrich to Lucy in the candy factory from I Love Lucy, and characterized Gingrich as “zany,” a la a sitcom neighbor. In a recent debate, Romney alluded to the wisdom of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. But this morning, in a possibly long-lived gaffe during a CNN interview, Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom experienced that classic of sitcom goofs: the “Whoops, did I just say that out loud?” moment.
Taking a victory lap after Romney’s decisive win in Illinois, Fehrnstrom fielded the question of whether the conservative stances his boss has taken to win over the GOP base will hurt him in the fall with independents in the general election. He brushed off any concern: “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.”
Oops. The damaging thing about the comment, of course, is that it not only plays into one of Romney’s biggest weaknesses–the perception that he has no core principles–but provided a better, funnier metaphor for Romney’s malleability than Romney’s opponents could have dreamed of with a massive advertising budget. I assume the Etch-a-Sketch commercials are being storyboarded as I write this. Oh, wait, here’s one already!
In one short sentence, Fehrnstrom defined his boss as not only a blank slate but a toy. But here’s the thing: it’s not just that this characterization of Romney is painfully correct. It’s actually, expressed better, part of the “electability” argument for Romney. Romney has been cleaning up among GOP voters whose top priority is beating Barack Obama. Implicit in that–whether those voters are comfortable saying it or not–is the idea that Romney will be able to present a more moderate face than his opponents.
What’s more, this is pretty standard political strategy, for many politicians of any party. It’s cliche at this point to note that you win elections by campaigning to your base in the primary, then “tacking to the center” for the general election. But key to making the strategy work–and someone really needs to write this on a whiteboard at Romney HQ–is you are not supposed to actually say it.
What Fehrnstrom said is the sort of thing that, in private among campaign workers or on-background with reporters, would be not only unobjectionable but would seem savvy. But Fehrnstrom forgot that, on air with CNN, your audience is not just campaign insiders, it is, you know, the people you actually want to vote for you. They may not believe that you, or another opponent, will do everything you say. Some of them, on some level, may want you to Etch-a-Sketch yourself to bring home the win for your party. (Hoping, of course, that you’ll actually govern in line with their own beliefs.) But you at least need to offer them the fig leaf.
Fehrnstrom’s mistake was: a CNN interviewer asked him an inside-baseball process question, and he gave an inside-baseball process answer. And it was the kind of answer that, in the very act of voicing it, undermines your argument: that you can artfully pull off the trick of shifting positions for the fall. With that Etch-a-Sketch simile, it suddenly becomes that much harder for Romney to “reset” anything down the road.
It’s the sort of line you can’t erase, though I’m sure plenty of folks in the Romney campaign would like to shake the TV screen, really hard.