Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mitt Romney: An Etch A Sketch Candidate in an Era of Permanent Ink

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment may be the defining moment in what can only be described as a tumultuous primary season. Romney’s longtime aide Eric Fehrnstrom caused a firestorm of criticism for his boss when he said on CNN that the general election offered a chance to hit the “reset button for thefall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You cankind of shake it up and we start all over again." When scholars perform their post-mortem of the 2012 campaign, they may be able to point to the Etch A Sketch moment as the precise point in time when Mitt Romney lost the election.

Fehrnstrom’s comments are both illustrative and important in two very different ways. First, Etch A Sketch may well be the last straw for many conservatives who already do not trust Romney. Whether it is Romney’s Mormon faith, the moderate policy positions he cultivated as Massachusetts Governor, or the air of inauthenticity that clings to Romney like an ill-fitting suit, conservatives have never embraced him. The Etch A Sketch comments validate the feeling among conservatives that Romney has no core, that he is a political chameleon who will do or say anything to win, that he is not one of them. Etch A Sketch may not cost Romney the nomination, but it could very well cost him the general election should he be the Republican Party nominee. The first order of business for any presidential campaign is to turn out the base in November. And if part of the GOP base decides to stay home rather than vote for their party’s candidate that they view as a charlatan, especially in crucial battleground states like Ohio and Virginia, Romney cannot win.

Secondly, the Etch A Sketch comments reveal that the Romney campaign is utilizing a playbook that is outdated in the 21st Century. There is no reset button in presidential politics—not anymore. The ubiquity of social media means that the lines drawn on the Etch A Sketch during the primary season are drawn in permanent ink. You can shake the toy as much as you like but the lines will still be there. Every event is recorded. Every speech, every public utterance, every awkward joke lives on in perpetuity, only one Google search away from being the next viral campaign ad run by the opposition. I’m pretty sure that the Obama campaign is adept at navigating that series of tubes we call the Internet, collecting for later use every Romney misstep, gaffe, and controversial statement from tree height to Cadillacs to Planned Parenthood. In 2012, a candidate can no longer tack to the extremes of their party during the primary season only to sprint to the middle during the fall campaign without repercussion. The social media microscope—often primed by a well-conceived 140 character tweet—makes that impossible.

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