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Mitt Romney's Overt Cynicism May Not End Up Being All That Costly

Etch A Sketch

First Posted: 03/22/2012 4:16 pm Updated: 05/22/2012 5:12 am

If a liberal critic of Mitt Romney were to pick a child's toy to symbolize his oft-criticized tendency to erase old principles in favor of more politically expedient ones, said critic could obviously do a lot worse than pick the Etch a Sketch. And on a long enough timeline, the comparison might have been seized upon and made by any number of liberal critics. But what caught the world on fire yesterday was that the Etch a Sketch comparison was made by Romney's trusted aide-de-camp, Eric Fehrnstrom. And he intended it neither as compliment or criticism of the former Massachusetts governor -- Fehrnstrom was merely speaking to the way tactics change from a primary election to the general election: the famous "pivot to the center."

Naturally, the Etch a Sketch imagery was probably an overstatement, dragged out of Fehrnstrom's brain-pan in the heat of an on-air interview. And everyone -- from the DNC to Romney's primary opponents -- jumped on it, precisely because it was a seemingly inexplicable thing to say. The imagery resonated poorly against Romney's well-worn reputation as a flip-flopper. And the gaffe came from someone from Romney's inner circle. So, it was treated by some as accidentally revelatory and others as a key mistake, with which Romney's opposition could make hay.

But was it really all that costly? Jonathan Chait, for one, is convinced that it is. He cites two errors here, the first being that the Romney campaign, in suggesting that once Romney moves to a general election the repositioning will be as simple as wiping the slate clean and starting over, is "giving away the game too early." "It's okay to do that after you've sewn up the nomination," Chait writes, "but not while conservatives can still make your life difficult."

I'd say it's an open question as to how difficult former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) can make it for Romney. But both of those guys are waving Etch a Sketches around on the stump now, so I suspect we'll find out the answer pretty soon. The second problem Chait cites is actually more interesting:

Second, Romney's campaign suffers from a general problem of failing to hide its cynicism. The campaign's grasp of the underlying dynamics is totally sound. It sees President Obama's political vulnerability as stemming entirely from the 2007-2008 economic disaster, and it views conservative ideology as ballast upon Romney. If Romney can avoid positioning himself too far from the center, and the economy fails to recover swiftly enough, he should win. Presto!

Romney's tendency to lay his cynicism bare is something that we sort of keep cycling back to as a curiosity in this campaign. It's probably best exemplified by these eleven words: "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals." But it shows up everywhere. You see it when he flaunts his wealth, against what one would imagine to be good advice. You see it when he decides to move a small gathering of supporters to a massive stadium, where it's all but certain the camera will capture the empty, cavernous space.

And if you recall, it shows up in his campaign's overall attitude to relentlessly lie about things. When the Romney campaign was called upon to defend its decision to release a deceptive ad -- which implied that a statement made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and cited by then-candidate Obama on the stump in 2008 ("If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.") was actually made by Obama in the context of the 2012 race -- the campaign breezily blew off the criticism by -- once again -- laying bare their cynicism:

"First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business.... Ads are agitprop.... Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It's ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context.... All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art."

It's sort of breathtaking to see the Romney camp repeatedly emphasizing the artifice of their campaign in this manner. Students of Bertolt Brecht understand that the risk in creating this distancing effect is that you invite critical observation. There are some conservatives that seem to have assessed the risk in this manner. Yuval Levin opined:

I would have thought that no political professional -- indeed, no adult who has ever been around conservative politics or thought about it much -- would ever say something so patently foolish, which so thoroughly confirms every worry that every conservative has about the candidate for whom he works.

And Bill McGurn said that Fehrnstrom needed to be fired, post-haste:

Mr. Romney's problem is not his policies or programs; his problem is his credibility: many people just don't believe he really believes what he is telling us. Firing Mr. Fehrnstrom would be a welcome signal that Mr. Romney is offended by any suggestion, no matter how much it might be later explained away, that he does not really believe what he says -- and is ready, willing, and able to erase it away when he thinks he needs to. The worst part is that Mr. Fehrnstrom does not appear to have chosen unfortunate words that distort what he ways trying to say. To the contrary, his problem is that he appears to have inadvertently expressed what he, and by extension the Romney campaign, really does think.

This is a tough decision for any candidate. We'll learn something by Mr. Romney's reaction.

But, as Kevin Drum noted, such criticism was pretty rare on the right:

Here's the interesting thing about this comment. It's provoked loads of mockery from liberals. It's provoked a bunch of attacks from the other candidates. But among the conservative commentariat, it's mostly just been sighs. I haven't seen much outrage along the lines of "This just goes to show what a fake Romney is." It's mostly been disbelief that Fehrnstrom could say something so dumb; wan defenses that he wasn't really saying anything we didn't know already; and explanations that obviously Fehrnstrom was talking about campaign mechanics, not issues.

Here's what I think: this stuff doesn't really do Romney any harm while it's March, and his opposition, in practical terms, would have to pull of something miraculous to deny him the nomination. He's all but coasting into the general election, so why should Fehrnstrom worry? In fact, if Fehrnstrom is even a tiny bit smart, he knows all of the avenues of criticism that will be pursued against Romney this summer -- he's wealthy to the point of exclusion, his principles are malleable, his positions change with the wind, he'll badly lie if it helps him win. Any chance to lay these out for criticism today is a chance to inoculate Romney tomorrow.

There are two competing schools of thought on the long primary season. One holds that all the contention damages the eventual nominee, the other contends that it makes the eventual nominee stronger. I imagine that the Romney camp holds to the latter view. And they have precedent, in the form of the lengthy primary that went down in 2008 between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton went hard at Obama's main vulnerabilities, pulling out all the stops in an effort to curb his momentum. But Obama survived. And when McCain got a chance to wield the same daggers, he found them worn and blunted and mostly useless. We'd adjudicated most of those matters in the media.

It's since became an article of faith on the right that Obama wasn't sufficiently "vetted" and that McCain lost because he was unwilling to go dirty, but McCain really didn't have a choice -- those critiques lacked novelty and utility by the time the summer swung into fall. (McCain's best gambit at the time was the one he took -- depicting Obama as a "celebrity" figure that contrasted poorly with McCain's own war-hero sacrifices. Unfortunately, the economy picked a bad time to keel over.) I read most of the complaints about Obama's inadequate vetting as a larger regret that it was Clinton that handled that vetting, and not a conservative, who could have gone at it with more venom.

The "Etch a Sketch" flap, as far as Romney is concerned, is much the same. Saying that Romney will say anything to win an election, and is a sell-out betrayer of conservative principles waiting to happen, carries a sting -- it goes right to the heart of conservative unease with Romney. Gingrich and Santorum really have no other choice than to pursue it with relish. But pursue it though they may, they will not, in all likelihood, win. It's a different story entirely if Obama tries to use it. It surely won't cause the spirits of conservative voters to flag -- when Obama tells them that Romney will say anything it takes to win, their reply will be, "Yeah, here's hoping."

And by the time we get to the general election, the media will be bored with most of this stuff. You're never going to have a better chance to hit Romney with an Etch a Sketch than you do right now. And as for any coming deceptions in campaign ads, I'd expect those complaints to have diminishing returns as well. After all, the Romney campaign has been so bracingly honest about its intention to deceive! It's something everybody does! The campaign expects it to be done to them! So dishonesty is just a interesting feature in the political landscape. A neat tactic. An interesting point of view. And it could prove to be somewhat harder to prosecute Romney for failing to provide the rose garden he said he wasn't promising.

In the wake of Fehrnstrom's remarks, the Romney campaign has offered its version of a walkback, thus fulfilling the requirement that the campaign show concern over this gaffe. But they aren't sweating it. This is a great time to up and embrace your cynical side -- when those who have the greatest reason to pillory you for it today can't stop you. By tomorrow, it will be yesterday's news.

As a side note, I'll point out that the Etch a Sketch gaffe has come at the same time as what might have otherwise been a much more glaring political error -- Romney's curious decision to align himself with the Bush-era bailouts. Chait noticed this too, and I've seen some chatter on the matter in today's cable news clatter. But do you imagine that discussion of this more constructive point will outpace the coverage of the Etch a Sketch flap? You shouldn't. In the political newscycle, the pseudo-event always wins.

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