If only team Obama had a powerful metaphor to undercut Romney's effort to Etch-A-Sketch himself into a middle-class-loving moderate.
Oh wait, they do. But even though the Romney campaign has apparently changed its losing strategy of being an "extreme conservative," team Obama has so far failed to respond with the obvious, winning strategy -- labeling Romney the Etch-A-Sketch candidate for attempting to erase his numerous unpopular policy positions and redraw himself as a centrist. In this post, I'll discuss why they haven't -- and why they should.
Back in March, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom made what was, until the 47 percent video, the political gaffe of the year. He was asked about how his boss's politics might change after he gets the nomination. "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Fehrnstrom said, "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."
As the columnist Michael Kinsley's defined it, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth." Romney's effort to recast himself with myriad untruths in the first presidential debate revealed that indeed Fehrnstrom was telling the truth.
I've been interested in this gaffe for two reasons. First, climate and energy are two of the major areas where Romney has shaken his position and started again -- see, for instance, "Another Etch A Sketch Moment: In 2006, Romney Supported High Gasoline Prices to Discourage Consumption." In June, the NY Times had a scathing editorial, "Energy Etch A Sketch." They point out that after Romney erased all the sensible energy and climate policies he had as governor, today "the policies he espouses would be devastating for the country and the planet."
In last week's debate, Romney said, "I love coal." I guess it's like one of those TV sitcom or movie romcom love affairs that began with really intense dislike, since back in 2003, then Governor Romney attacked coal jobs that "kill people."
Second, my new book on persuasive communications -- Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga -- examines effective messaging, political gaffes, and the role of the figures of speech.
Back in March, I wrote on HuffPost, "Eight Reasons the Etch-A-Sketch Gaffe Will Endure." In the book I discuss why it is a particularly powerful weapon:
Another reason this is likely to endure is that it is a visual metaphor that everyone knows from childhood. Like all vivid metaphors, it connects something we understand and can describe easily (how an Etch-A-Sketch works) with something we can't (how Romney works). If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good metaphor is worth two thousand.
Metaphors are especially memorable because, as one journal article put it, "Studies reveal that virtually all of our abstract conceptualization and reasoning is structured by metaphor." Churchill called metaphors "among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician."
"Etch a Sketch is itself a figure of speech -- a rhyme -- which makes it an even more memorable phrase."
Rhymes, like the best figures, work because they aid memory. Indeed, the figures of speech were developed by the great bards like Homer precisely because they made it easier for them to remember epic poems and because they stuck in the listener's ears.
This metaphor erased all the previous metaphors used for Romney's tendency to be on all sides of an issue -- like flip-flopper -- and drew a simple, compelling visual image that still shadows Romney months later. Why? Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza explained, "Gaffes that matter are those that speak to a larger narrative about a candidate or a doubt/worry that voters already have about that particular candidate." The Etch-a-Sketch gaffe "is likely to linger in the electorate it speaks to a broader storyline already bouncing around the political world: That Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win."
And yet while pundits like Chris Matthews still use the metaphor, team Obama doesn't. Why?
Ryan Lizza gave the answer last month in the New Yorker. In November 2011, key members of Obama's campaign briefed Clinton on their planned strategy:
At the time, the Obama team was alternating between two arguments about Romney. One presented him as an inveterate flip-flopper, the other as a right-wing ideologue who would return the country to a pre-New Deal dystopia. Clinton advised them to stick with the second argument. It would help with fund-raising, he said; liberal donors would be more motivated to fight a fierce conservative.
If they defined Romney as a flip-flopper, undecided voters might think that he could return to his moderate roots once he was in office. "They tried to do this to me, the flip-flopper thing," Clinton said, according to someone in the room. "It just doesn't work." He told the Obama aides that voters never held the flip-flopper attacks against him because they felt that he would simply do what was right.
Unsurprisingly, Clinton's advice turned out to be very good -- given team Romney's appease-the-base strategy at the time. It led to Obama winning June, July, August, and, amazingly, even September. Unexpectedly, Romney didn't "hit a reset button for the fall campaign" at the Republican convention.
No, Romney waited until it was obvious he was starting to lose badly, especially in swing states like Ohio, before, "like an Etch A Sketch" he decided to "shake it up and we start all over again."
As Tom Friedman explained in a Sunday column, in the debate, Romney decided to "start aggressively playing to win": "He did so by repositioning himself as a center-right Republican moderate. Yes, this required him to mischaracterize and disguise key aspects of his platform on taxes and health care."
Once Romney switched strategy -- once he returned to his moderate roots -- team Obama had to switch strategy, too. If Romney was going to tell "27 Myths In 38 Minutes," Obama couldn't possibly refute them all.
Simply saying your opponent is lying over and over again is not a winning strategy -- how can some undecided or independent voter decide who is telling the truth, especially if the moderator isn't acting as an umpire? Moreover, most voters, certainly most undecideds or independents think all politicians lie -- if they didn't, they'd have picked a side already.
No, the only viable response to Romney's Gish Gallup is to use some powerful metaphor that everyone will understand, a metaphor that matches what people already think about Romney, in this case a metaphor the Romney campaign itself created to describe precisely the strategy Romney has finally adopted!
This isn't about calling Romney a flip-flopper. It's about using a memorable metaphor to draw a powerful picture that "Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win."
As I wrote in my book, "If team Obama has language intelligence, we'll see and hear a lot about Etch-A-Sketches."
If not, you'll see millions spent on ads trying to convince swing voters that, like all politicians, Romney lies.