Etched In Stone, Before Long

Yesterday, I wrote a post sticking up for Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom on the whole Etch A Sketch thing. But in the 24 hours since, it has only gotten bigger. It isn't, we should be clear, "taking on a life of its own," because saying that is a way of excusing the individual decisions involved in the growth and spread of a meme like this one. The fact is that actual people—Romney's primary opponents, Democrats, and reporters—are making the choice to drop the Etch A Sketch comment, and what it is supposed to represent, into discussions, speeches, news stories, and ads. And at this point it's looking more and more like this is a metaphor that's going to stick around. Why? Let me offer some suggestions.

It's both novel and clever. How many different ways can you say Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper? However many there are, they've been utterly exhausted by now. But Fehrnstrom, in a perfectly reasonable attempt to describe the way a general election campaign differs from a primary campaign, stumbled on a metaphor that is easily understood, quite apt (though not in the way he intended, of course), and that many of us had never heard used in this way before. That newness gives bored campaign reporters the opportunity have something new to write about, even if much of what results is inane pieces like this one.

It's visual. It's no wonder that the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns quickly sent out staffers to procure Etch A Sketches for their candidates to hold up at campaign events. They knew that photographers couldn't resist the image—once you've taken 500 shots of a candidate at a podium, anything that mixes it up is going to draw your attention. And when the idea gets spread widely enough, all you need to do is hold up one of the toys and you've made an entire argument. That's what metaphors do: they carry a whole lot of meaning in a simple idea or image. Then it can be repeated, reimagined, and parodied endlessly, like in the caricature that accompanies this post, or in this DNC ad, reinforcing it over and over.

It requires no new thought. It isn't as though reporters are all saying, "Hmm, Etch A Sketch ... You know, I've never thought about Mitt Romney this way before, but this metaphor gives real insight into him." Instead, the Etch A Sketch is just a new way to say the same thing they've been saying all along, that Romney is a political chameleon ever willing to change himself to suit the demands of the moment, and once the primaries are over, he'll stop pandering to right-wing extremists and immediately begin pandering to the center. The evidence is pretty strong that this portrait is an accurate one, but that doesn't mean it will always be applied fairly. In any case, reporters long ago decided who Romney is, and they aren't going to change.

Put all that together, and the Etch A Sketch becomes very sticky. Chances are increasing that we'll be hearing it a lot from now until November.

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