When Republican political consultant Eric Fehrnstrom said that a general election matchup tends to create a clean slate for candidates much like the shake of an Etch A Sketch, he did nothing more than state an obvious truth that applies to this fall’s campaign as it has others.
His boss, Mitt Romney, will be judged head-to-head versus a lone opponent, President Obama, should he emerge as the GOP nominee against the Democratic incumbent.
What Romney said while running against multiple members of his own party during the primary and caucus season would not have the same context as what he and Obama will say in their convention speeches, fall debates, and general election campaign stops - and when voters focus on the idea that just one of them will be the person inaugurated as president next January.
The Democrats’ immediate and expansive protestations about the remark, some Republicans’ concerns or embarrassment over it, and the subsequent rise in the toy maker’s stock price glossed over this universal political truth: primaries are one thing, general elections quite another.
But in the specific case of Romney, the Etch A Sketch comment affirmed other basic truths about the candidate, his staff, and the nature of the campaign they have run for the nation’s highest office.
First, there appear to be few core beliefs that bind Romney to any governing or political philosophy.
This is a candidate who has had not one but two epiphanies that led him to hold contradictory positions about abortion rights during a 10-year span.
In 1994, while challenging Democratic incumbent Edward M. Kennedy for the US Senate, Romney declared himself a personal opponent of abortion but a political supporter of abortion rights.
He made a heartfelt defense of his stance to skeptical voters in heavily liberal Democratic Massachusetts by relating the emotional tale of a family friend who died from an illegal abortion, and by recalling his own mother’s support for abortion rights.
Yet in a July 2005 op-ed column for the Globe, after having been elected governor of Massachusetts but while beginning to position himself nationally for his first presidential run in 2008, Romney announced that he was vetoing a contraception bill because he felt a drug it authorized could be used to terminate life after conception.
He also cited information he had learned while studying embryo cloning and embryo farming, saying a Harvard scientist’s suggestion he allowed embryos to be unceremoniously discarded contributed to anti-abortion views that “have evolved and deepened during my time as governor.”
Never mind that the scientist disputed his recounting of their conversation; Romney declared himself both personally and politically opposed to abortion in all but cases of rape, incest, or risk to the life of a mother.
Now, on the presidential campaign trail, he has also called for the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which he said in 1994 “should be sustained and supported” and, in 2002, affirmed by saying he would “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.”
He has had similar shifts in policy or emphasis when it comes to gun rights, climate change, and gay rights, among other things, earning him the label of a flip-flopper.
In a general election campaign against Obama, Romney will accurately be able to highlight the president’s own flip-flops – retaining after promising to close a detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, comes to mind – but his his own political malleability is documentable.
His campaigns, whether for US Senate, Massachusetts governor, or the presidency, have unfolded as if not steered by convictions but dictated by scripts.
That leads to a second basic truth about Romney and his staff: contrition is not part of their storyboard.
When Fehrnstrom’s remark became cable fodder, his boss was only reluctantly drawn into the fray by answering one question allowed to reporters at the end of a campaign event.
Moments earlier, Romney had grabbed a reporter’s tape recorder and declared that he was not holding a press conference, emblematic of his campaign’s tight control over public and media interaction.
“Organizationally, a general-election campaign takes on a different profile,” Romney ultimately said. “Issues I’m running on will be exactly the same.”
He added: “I’m running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I’ll be running as a conservative Republican nominee.”
Fehrnstrom, meanwhile, noted the boost in sales of Ohio Arts, maker of the Etch A Sketch, by quipping: “I’ll mention Mr. Potato Head next.”
That response recalled the occasion last summer when Fehrnstrom was unmasked as the author of a veiled Twitter feed that questioned the sanity, manliness, and political views of a possible opponent of another of his clients, Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
“Sometimes we take our politics too seriously, and this was my way of lightening things up. As they say in politics, if you can’t stand the tweet, get out of the kitchen,” Fehrnstrom said after his own errant tweet outed him as author of the “CrazyKhazei” feed in August.
An occasion to apologize instead became an opportunity to launch another attack – this time suggesting his target lacked the funnybone needed to see the humor in jokes Fehrnstrom had only been willing to make anonymously.
Finally, the imagery Fehrnstrom inspired by evoking the erasability of an Etch A Sketch screen hinted at the campaign’s disregard for the permanence of its statements, be they about the candidate’s past policies or the staff’s treatment of its rivals.
Alec MacGillis of The New Republic recounted last week some of the environmental views Romney harbored during his term as governor.
In short, they were short on the current philosophy of “drill, baby, drill” and long on green strategies such as car-pooling, tax incentives for buying fuel-efficient vehicles, and stronger vehicle emission standards.
“Befitting his profile as a moderate Republican who cared about the environment, Governor Romney responded to price spikes by describing them as the natural result of global market pressures and by calling for increases in fuel efficiency - the same approach that he now derides Obama for taking as president,” MacGillis wrote.
Meanwhile, as Rick Santorum has mounted the most serious challenge to Romney for the nomination, Romney and his staff have taken to not just differentiating themselves from their rival, but delighting in belittling the former Pennsylvania senator in the process.
It has had the resonance of a race for class president, not the highest office in the land.
“Rick Santorum: Economic Lightweight,” read the headline on a press release issued by the Romney campaign last week. “Economic Lightweight Takes One on the Chin,” read another.
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, a onetime speechwriter for conservative icon Ronald Reagan, chided Romney for the pettiness of the label.
“Cheesy grits, jeans, singing, being compulsively pleasant, calling your opponents lightweights - enough,” she wrote this weekend as she called for more gravitas from the purported frontrunner.
If history is any guide, though, Romney will embrace Santorum if he should drop out of the race, just as he did Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman.
Shaking an Etch a Sketch may eliminate any trace of the words or images scrawled on its screen, but not necessarily the damage they did to the reputations of Romney and his opponents beforehand.
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.