A Bum Rap, Etch-a-Sketch Installment

As I've noted before, a substantial amount of the time the media and ordinary people spend talking about a presidential campaign consists of a discussion of charges and counter-charges about something somebody said, usually a candidate but not always. Not a lot really happens during a campaign–what candidates mostly do is talk, so their words take on an elevated importance. Each side tries to assert that the other's off-the-cuff statements hold the power to reveal hidden agendas and fatal weaknesses. It's all pretty silly.

And it isn't just the candidates. Even surrogates and campaign aides' words can be fodder for feigned outrage, as happened yesterday (and Jamelle mentioned) when Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom got asked whether his candidate would have trouble pivoting to the general election when he had spent the primary season pandering so vigorously to the Republican base. "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign, everything changes," Fehrnstrom said. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." Predictably, Romney's opponents were all over it, especially Rick Santorum, who expressed his dismay.

I'm going to resist the impulse to shout "Aha!" and suggest that what Fehrnstrom said was, from his vantage point, completely fine. Does anyone really believe that a top Romney aide was saying that Romney was going to change his positions for the general election? Of course not. From a strategic point of view, a wiping of the slate between the primary and general election campaigns is not only what most presidential campaigns want, it's what most of them actually do.

In a primary campaign, you're talking to one portion of the electorate—members of your own party—and trying to convince them that you're a superior candidate to represent them in the general election. In the general you're trying to win the votes of people from across the spectrum. That means you'll talk about different issues, and maybe even give your campaign new themes. You'll probably add more policy proposals to those you offered during the primaries. You're almost certain to talk about how you can work with the other party, something members of your own party weren't interested in hearing about during the primaries. None of that is necessarily dishonest or cynical.

Needless to say, candid talk about the transition to the general election can easily be misconstrued and blown out of proportion, which is why campaign advisors ordinarily sound like incredibly boring talking-point machines when they go on television, lest they say something interesting and damage their candidate. What Fehrnstrom was supposed to say was, "Mitt Romney will be the same dynamic leader in the fall that he is now, blah blah blah." But the fact that he didn't say that doesn't mean he revealed something important.

Mitt Romney will in fact be a different candidate in the general election than he is now. Some of the ways he'll be different will constitute craven flip-flops and hedges. But others will be perfectly legitimate changes in emphasis. Will the media be able to tell the difference? Probably not.

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