Commentary Magazine


Etch A Sketch Versus Flexibility

Mitt Romney’s greatest liability heading into the fall campaign has been his well-earned reputation for flip-flopping on the issues. That’s why last week’s gaffe by longtime Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, in which he described the “reset” of his Republican primary campaign to a more centrist one in the general election as similar to an Etch A Sketch toy, was so telling. But though that line will dog Romney all the way to November, President Obama has now supplied the GOP with one that will more than balance it.

Though his unscripted “hot mic” moment with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has been rightly excoriated as evidence of the president’s feckless foreign policy principles, it is also one that should take a bit of the fizz out of the Democrat’s attempt to portray Romney as a phony. While it is fair to judge Romney as someone who might be adjusting his campaign rhetoric for a general audience after tilting to the right when trying to win his party’s nomination, Obama’s promised post-election tilt to the left ought to scare the electorate even more.

The Obama presidency has been short on achievements. After the passage of his signature health care plan (whose constitutionality will be decided by the Supreme Court this spring), the stimulus boondoggle and the car bailout, he has had little to show for himself. Most of the last three-plus years have been spent on tactical maneuvering to no great end. But as Obama’s revealing remarks to Medvedev make clear, he is looking forward to a second term to show his true colors. The pose of centrism — of being the only adult in the room as he tried to portray himself during the debt-ceiling crisis — will be gone. If he is given a more pliable Congress in 2013, another round of over-the-top expenditures, higher taxes and expansions of government power are a virtual certainty.

On foreign policy, more “flexibility” to appease Russia is just the tip of the iceberg. Of even greater interest to most Americans should be how the president shifts his stance on the Middle East. Obama has devoted a great deal of energy in recent months to his charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters in which he has portrayed himself as Israel’s greatest friend. But it takes no stretch of the imagination to conjure up exactly how friendly a second Obama administration will be to the Jewish state once the constraints of his “last election” are removed. It should be little different from his first three years in office that were marked by constant fights with Israel’s government and initiatives that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians.

In the Middle East, Obama’s “flexibility” will likely mean recognition of Hamas and its role in the Palestinian Authority and efforts to bring the United States closer to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as a return to pressure tactics aimed at Israel.

When placed against the Etch A Sketch charge lodged against Romney, Obama’s second term “flexibility” seems a much more serious charge.

Though Romney may be accused of catering to conservatives in the primaries, the basic outlines of a Romney presidency aren’t in much doubt. We know he will work to repeal ObamaCare (should it not be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), work to reform entitlements and strengthen national defense. That he is not someone who is inclined to radical shifts or revolutionary efforts to overturn the existing system is troubling to the right who want a complete paradigm change in Washington rather than a competent manager or reformer. There is no deception here, just a matter of managing perceptions, as we all know Romney will attempt to govern in a moderate fashion.

By contrast, the mendacity of Obama’s attempt to portray himself as a moderate is stunning, and a second term will be the only way to find out just how far to the left he willing to go. This makes for a general election campaign that should turn on rival charges of deception. The certainty that Obama’s flexibility will mean a hard shift to the left ought to outweigh worries about Romney’s Etch A Sketch proclivities.