Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why Etch A Sketch gibe will be hard for Romney to shake

By Michael Wolraich, Special to CNN
updated 10:20 AM EDT, Fri March 23, 2012
A Romney campaign gaffe that likened shifting to the general election to shaking up an Etch A Sketch could dog the race.
A Romney campaign gaffe that likened shifting to the general election to shaking up an Etch A Sketch could dog the race.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Wolraich: Etch A Sketch gaffe-turned-joke highlights bind Romney was already in
  • He says in truth Etch A Sketch leaves residue on screen after a shake, a better analogy here
  • He says voters forget actual policy promises; they remember gaffes, one-liners, labels
  • Wolraich: Romney can defend consistency all he wants, but it's the new pithy gibe that will stick

Editor's note: Michael Wolraich is a founder of the political blog dagblog.com and the author of "Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual."

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney is in a bind. He must present himself as a staunch conservative in order to appeal to skeptical right-wing voters in the Republican presidential primary, but if he plays it too conservative, he'll alienate moderate voters in the general election.

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom is not overly concerned, though. On Wednesday, he expressed confidence the campaign would hit the "reset button" after the nomination and redraw Romney as a moderate candidate.

"Everything changes," he explained on CNN, "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."

Fehrnstrom's comparison of his boss' campaign to a toy tablet ignited a political firestorm. Internet wags imagined Mitt Romney as an Etch A Sketch drawing, while his primary opponents, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, gleefully brandished Etch A Sketches at campaign events. Romney rushed to contain the damage by promising to be a true conservative forever.

Michael Wolraich
Michael Wolraich

It won't work.

Fehrnstrom has accidentally stumbled on something profound. He may not have much experience with Etch A Sketch technology. With all due respect to that iconic American toy, its legendary reset abilities have never been quite up to scratch. Dark smudges tend to mar the perimeter of its silvery slate, and no matter how vigorously you shake the thing, you can never quite obliterate the residue. Even so, the real-life Etch A Sketch in all its splotchy glory actually offers a better metaphor for American politics than the fantasy of a clean post-primary slate.

It's not that Fehrnstrom's contempt for the cognitive capabilities of the voters is entirely off the mark. The collective memory of the American electorate is notoriously short.

Etch A Sketch creates campaign mischief
McKinnon: Aide gaffe 'problematic'
Santorum: Policy not on an Etch A Sketch

Think you're smarter than the average voter? Identify the authors of these political promises:

• "He won't streamline the federal government and change the way it works, cut 100,000 bureaucrats and put 100,000 new police officers on the streets of American cities, but I will."

• "And after we fund important priorities in the ongoing operations of our government, I believe we ought to pay down national debt. And so my budget pays down a record $2 trillion in debt over the next 10 years."

• "My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors and stay within the public financing system for the general election."

(Answers: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama)

OK, maybe you're one of the smart ones, but most people would have to guess. That's why it's not very hard for presidential candidates to shift from primary promises that appeal to the base to general election proposals that appeal to moderates and independents.

Even issues a few months old go rapidly stale when the pressure comes off. House Republicans have recently violated the historic debt deal they agreed to less than a year ago, gambling that voters won't hold them to it. They seem to be right. The media has barely covered the story; the public isn't interested.

But American voters don't forget everything. Some words and ideas seem to permanently embed themselves in our collective psyche. Try identifying the authors of these quotes:

• "Read my lips: no new taxes"

• "I am not a crook."

• "Tear down this wall."

• "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

Easy, right? George H. W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton.

How about this one? "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Most Americans probably remember very little about Vice President Dan Quayle, let alone Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, but this brief exchange during a vice-presidential debate was unforgettable.

Pithy one-liners tend to fix themselves in our mental machinery far more easily than complex ideas. They capture a personality, a moment or an idea in a few compelling or amusing words. Apt labels and nicknames also tend to stick: Reagan the great communicator, Clinton the comeback kid, John McCain the maverick, John Kerry the flip-flopper.

Once embedded in the great Etch A Sketch that is American political consciousness, these ideas cannot be shaken free for decades, sometimes even centuries. People still say, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" some 170 years after the campaign slogan was coined, though few have any idea who it referred to or why.

Time will tell which words and ideas endure from the 2012 presidential election, but Eric Fehrnstrom has offered us a prime candidate. The Etch A Sketch perfectly captures voters' perception of Mitt Romney as an opportunistic politician anxious to redraw himself according to the political requirements of the moment, a man who leans left in Massachusetts and right in Mississippi. The notion provokes the mistrust of conservatives, the cynicism of moderates and the amusement of liberals.

Whether the label is fair is beside the point. Romney can defend his ideological consistency all year long. Nonetheless, when it comes to pithy words that stimulate the country's political imagination, you can shake and shake and shake, but you can never quite obliterate that residue.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Wolraich.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT