Like Greg Sargent, I think Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch gambit will work in the general election (though not so much if he’s elected president). Yes, his rhetoric is identical in substance to that of his opponents, but through tone and demeanor, Romney has managed to keep his moderate credentials, and few people within the mainstream media have bothered to challenge them.
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.
The economic genius makes a point. (Flickr/Marion Doss)
A few times in recent elections, a debate moderator has said to the candidates, "There's been a lot of negativity in this race. Is there anything nice you can say about your opponent?" To which they usually reply, "He's got a lovely family." But the inability to admit that the other guy ever in his life did anything right just makes you look like a phony, or a jerk, or both. To wit...
Mitt Romney speaking to troops in Afghanistan (Flickr/isafmedia)
No matter who the Republican presidential nominee turns out to be, this will be the first election in pretty much forever in which neither major party candidate served in the military. As a post-boomer, Barack Obama never had to worry too much about this question, since he came of age after the transition to an all-volunteer military. But Mitt Romney was of prime fighting age during Vietnam, a conflict he avoided with deferments for college and missionary work.
Probably not the Etch-a-Sketch they had in mind. (Flickr/Emily Kornblut)
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 Fehrstrom said was, from his vantage point, completely fine...
The thing to remember about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is that his political popularity depends on his ability to keep social issues away from the agenda. As long has he can portray himself as a technocratic, jobs oriented governor—and as long as Virginia maintains its steady rate of economic growth (juiced by the federal government in the north and the military in the south)—he can avoid association with his long history of regressive social conservatism. But now that those issues are on the agenda—thanks to his initial support for a bill to mandate forced penetration—McDonnell’s standing with Virginians, and women in particular, is in free fall.
President Obama in a Chevy Volt (official White House photo by Pete Souza)
or a long time, commentators noted that Barack Obama was going to have a hard time persuading the public with his argument about the economy, since it would come down to, "It could have been worse." Saying that unemployment may still be over 8 percent, and it peaked at 10 percent in October of 2009, but if it hadn't been for the stimulus we passed things would have been much, much worse, isn't going to be a consolation if you're unemployed. The fact that most economists say that the stimulus did in fact have a substantial positive effect on the economy doesn't really matter when it comes to getting people to vote for your re-election. When times are bad, "It could have been worse" is small comfort.
That was the story up until recently. But the last few months have shown strong job growth, and most everyone is expecting that the economy will continue its upward trajectory. And guess what that has done to Mitt Romney: made him argue the mirror image of what everyone said Obama couldn't argue persuasively. Romney's case on the economy now comes down to "It could have been better"...
Is Mitt Romney a guy who tells a bunch of lies, or is he a liar? That the question Jonathan Chait asks, and he winds up sort-of defends Romney, saying that his lies, many of which revolve around his effort to deny his own history, have been practical in nature. "It's Romney's bad luck that fate has dictated his only path to the presidency lies in being a huge liar," Chait says, so those lies don't tell us much about what's deep in Romney's character.
There are two problems here. The first is that Romney lies about President Obama as often as he lies about himself. It's just that when he does the former, he does it with actual squirming (if he's sitting down), the phoniest smile you've ever seen, and panic in his eyes, so it's really obvious. The second problem is that Chait's distinction applies to pretty much every political liar in history. There's always a reason why a politician lies. The biggest lies come when they get caught doing something they shouldn't have (Nixon with Watergate, Reagan with Iran-Contra, Clinton with Monica Lewinsky). They might be telling themselves, "Taking responsibility is all well and good, but it's better for the country if I get out of this scandal and continue with my duties." ...
Writing for Reuters, David Cay Johnston describes the wildly divergent recovery from the Great Recession:
The 1934 economic rebound was widely shared, with strong income gains for the vast majority, the bottom 90 percent. In 2010, we saw the opposite as the vast majority lost ground.
National income gained overall in 2010, but all of the gains were among the top 10 percent. Even within those 15.6 million households, the gains were extraordinarily concentrated among the super-rich, the top one percent of the top one percent.
Just 15,600 super-rich households pocketed an astonishing 37 percent of the entire national gain
Writing in Politico, Glenn Thrush finds Republicans terrified of the possibility that their likely nominee—Mitt Romney—has completely alienated Latinos with his harsh, anti-immigration rhetoric, and left Obama with the space to rack up a huge margin of support among the Latino community. Here’s Thrush:
Hispanics, a powerful bloc whose vote could decide the outcome in pivotal states such as Nevada, Florida, Colorado and Arizona, seem to have responded by abandoning Romney, with only 14 percent of Hispanic voters favoring him over Obama in a recent Fox Latino poll — one-third of the Hispanic support George W. Bush enjoyed in 2004.
Much has been made about Mitt Romney's struggles to win over the conservative base. He's polling even or ahead in Mississippi and Alabama before tonight's primaries, but given past performances, he'd need an act of God to win a Southern state. Gingrich and Santorum splitting the conservative vote might be just such a miracle, but it still seems somewhat unfathomable given Public Policy Polling's sample that puts evangelicals as 70 percent of likely Republican voters in Mississippi and 68 percent in Alabama.
That same PPP poll found that voters in these states didn't believe in evolution by large margins—60 percent in Alabama and 66 percent in Mississippi.