Commentary Magazine


Topic: Etch A Sketch

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.

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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.

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Santorum’s Fatal Flaw

Rick Santorum was making a meal out of Mitt Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch gaffe yesterday when the former senator got a little carried away. Honing in on the idea that Romney was a political chameleon who didn’t provide a clear alternative to President Obama, Santorum didn’t just stick to his usual line that nominating a moderate would guarantee a loss for the Republicans in November. Instead, he went one step farther:

“If they’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future.”

Santorum may not have actually intended to say that re-electing Barack Obama is preferable to replacing him with Mitt Romney. But that’s the way it came out. And, for all of Romney’s well-known flaws, this sort of an overstatement illustrates one of Santorum’s: his penchant for going off message and saying things that will come back to haunt him. The candidate has always prided himself on being unscripted but along with the spontaneity comes a tendency to go on too long when answering a question. That often leads Santorum into uncharted territory. He doesn’t need a teleprompter. What he really needs is an internal editor.

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Rick Santorum was making a meal out of Mitt Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch gaffe yesterday when the former senator got a little carried away. Honing in on the idea that Romney was a political chameleon who didn’t provide a clear alternative to President Obama, Santorum didn’t just stick to his usual line that nominating a moderate would guarantee a loss for the Republicans in November. Instead, he went one step farther:

“If they’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future.”

Santorum may not have actually intended to say that re-electing Barack Obama is preferable to replacing him with Mitt Romney. But that’s the way it came out. And, for all of Romney’s well-known flaws, this sort of an overstatement illustrates one of Santorum’s: his penchant for going off message and saying things that will come back to haunt him. The candidate has always prided himself on being unscripted but along with the spontaneity comes a tendency to go on too long when answering a question. That often leads Santorum into uncharted territory. He doesn’t need a teleprompter. What he really needs is an internal editor.

This overstatement about Romney not being better than Obama isn’t going to cost him too many votes this weekend in Louisiana where he is heavily favored. But it is the reason why he has always found himself in unnecessary scrapes about tangential issues throughout his career. He may blame most of this on the press and there is some truth to this. But no journalist has ever put a gun to Santorum’s head and forced him to talk about contraception or pornography or to compare gay relationships to bestiality. Nor did anyone force him to write a book filled with such nuggets that were manna from heaven for Democratic opposition researchers during his landslide defeat for reelection to the Senate in 2006. He did it himself and usually without forethought merely because he chose to follow a question to its logical though impolitic conclusion.

In positioning himself as a bitter-end opponent of Romney, Santorum might think he can win some extra votes in the next few weeks as the primary campaign winds down to its inevitable conclusion. But if he doesn’t put a lid on such statements soon he will be doing himself some significant long-range damage. At some point this spring, Santorum will be forced to come to the conclusion that his presidential chances are lost and he will have to concede. That may be a bitter pill to him but if he wants to have a future in the Republican Party, he will need to do it. As I wrote earlier this week, Santorum’s remarkable primary run has re-established him as a national figure in the GOP. Should Romney lose this fall, he will immediately be seen as a major contender for 2016. But his chances in the future will be compromised if he spends the next few months sabotaging Romney.

Santorum has already walked back the comment and acknowledged that he will support the winner of the GOP nomination. But anyone who wonders why Santorum is falling short in this race and why he might not ever get to the top of the heap can look no further than his lack of verbal discipline. Unless and until Rick Santorum learns to watch what he says once he starts talking, he will never beat the Romneys of this world. For all of his passion and intelligence, the betting here is that he never will.

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Jeb Endorsement May Ease the Sting of Romney Advisor’s “Etch A Sketch” Gaffe

After months of speculation, former Florida governor Jeb Bush finally jumped on Mitt Romney’s bandwagon. The son and brother of the 41st and 43rd presidents issued a statement saying “now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall.” The endorsement, coming on the day after Romney’s impressive win in Illinois all but made his nomination inevitable, isn’t likely to be of all that much help to the frontrunner in upcoming primaries. But it is a signal that the one family that could be said to embody the Republican establishment if there even is such a thing has formally certified Romney’s nomination.

The endorsement also is welcome since it comes on a day when the Romney campaign is dealing with a gaffe by one of his advisors that has the potential to alienate conservatives just at the moment when they may be coming to terms with the fact that they must make their peace with the inevitable nominee. This morning on CNN, Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said that Romney could tack back to the center after the primaries because:

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.

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After months of speculation, former Florida governor Jeb Bush finally jumped on Mitt Romney’s bandwagon. The son and brother of the 41st and 43rd presidents issued a statement saying “now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall.” The endorsement, coming on the day after Romney’s impressive win in Illinois all but made his nomination inevitable, isn’t likely to be of all that much help to the frontrunner in upcoming primaries. But it is a signal that the one family that could be said to embody the Republican establishment if there even is such a thing has formally certified Romney’s nomination.

The endorsement also is welcome since it comes on a day when the Romney campaign is dealing with a gaffe by one of his advisors that has the potential to alienate conservatives just at the moment when they may be coming to terms with the fact that they must make their peace with the inevitable nominee. This morning on CNN, Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said that Romney could tack back to the center after the primaries because:

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.

While it is true that any candidate will sound a bit different in a general election than in a primary, that’s exactly the sort of statement that reminds conservatives of Romney’s record of flip-flopping and why they don’t trust him. He is the last candidate whose staffers should be talking about fall resets. Republicans would like to believe that the Romney who spoke last night after his win about the imperative of economic freedom being the driving force of his campaign was the real candidate. Fehrstrom’s “Etch A Sketch” comment is likely to be catnip for Rick Santorum’s campaign and help ensure that, no matter what follows, Romney will get spanked in Louisiana.

That makes it more than just an ordinary gaffe. If Romney wants to convince conservatives he means it, he’ll have to start by suspending Fehrnstrom. In the meantime, he’ll hope that Jeb Bush’s belated endorsement will take some of the sting out of what may be a bad news cycle for him.

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