Mitt Romney's campaign has entered a sketchy phase. Or, more precisely, an etchy-sketchy phase.
OK, enough with the cheap jokes, as there certainly is no shortage of poking fun at Romney today, so we'll just move right along. What happened, in case you haven't heard, was that a senior Romney campaign official was caught in a "Washington gaffe" (defined as: accidentally admitting the truth in a political setting). His full quote, after being asked about whether Romney was being pushed too far to the right by his primary campaign opponents to appeal to moderates in the general election:
Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.
This is conventional wisdom in American politics, in actual fact. All candidates (of both parties) tack to the fringes for the primary campaign, and then pivot and tack back to the center for the general election campaign. But it's one of those things you're not supposed to admit out loud, especially not while being interviewed on the air.
Before we get to the ramifications of this gaffe, though, we have to pause to make a grammatical point. Etch A Sketch is a toy. It is, properly, a brand name. As such, it should be capitalized (not "etch a sketch"). It should also not be hyphenated, unless used as a modifying phrase (not "Etch-A-Sketch" unless saying something like "Romney's Etch-A-Sketch problem") -- mostly because it is not hyphenated in the brand name itself. And every leading letter should be capitalized (not "Etch a Sketch"). This paragraph was necessary because I've seen so many otherwise-respectable editors get it so wrong over the past few days. All it takes is a quick web search for a photo of the bright red toy to see how to properly write the brand name, folks. Take the extra five seconds and check before editing!
Personal editorial bugaboos aside, though, Romney has been desperately trying to live this gaffe down ever since it happened. Romney has shown an odd talent in the nominating race so far for stepping in verbal mudpuddles, usually immediately after a big primary win -- but in this particular case, it wasn't even his fault. Which matters not a whit to his opponents and the jaded voices in the media who are desperately trying to keep the "Romney's not quite inevitable" storyline alive for another two months.
Romney's biggest problem is that the entire episode fits so neatly in with his biggest perceived weakness as a Republican candidate: he is seen as a man who will do and say anything in order to be elected -- whether he believes in what he's saying or not. Conservatives were already uncomfortable with the idea of Romney as their nominee even before the Etch A Sketch comment. The idea of pressing "reset" on Romney-the-candidate already worries conservatives, and to have a top aide come out and blatantly admit that this would be the plan for the fall is going to sour them even more. In one word, Romney has a "trustworthiness" problem with the Republican base, which has now grown even harder for him to overcome.
Some are saying this could be a "defining moment" for Romney, in the eyes of the public. I kind of doubt that, for two reasons. First, Romney didn't utter the line himself. Second, there have already been several "defining moments" for Romney, all of which will be competing for the public's attention (Romney as: the "dog on the car's roof" guy, the "doesn't care about the very poor" guy, the "let Detroit die" guy, the "self-deportation" guy, the "likes to fire people" guy, the "cheesy grits, y'all" guy, the "corporations are people too" guy, and several more I've probably forgotten). To pin him as "Mr. Etch A Sketch" might be fun for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for a few weeks, but eventually it may fade.
Then again, it may not. The Romney-versus-Obama race is shaping up to be chock full of charges of flip-flopping, from both candidates. Both the president and Romney are seen as weak on the issue, and in politics you usually attack the other candidate on your own weaknesses. Romney's campaign was supposed to be about the economy, but if the economy continues to improve all summer long it will reduce the effectiveness of his argument until he's the one who seems out of touch. Gas prices will also be coming down at the end of the summer, as they almost always do, which will also serve to weaken Romney's main argument.
Romney will then attempt to make the case that Barack Obama hasn't kept his campaign promises, and therefore cannot be trusted by the voters. President Obama, if he's smart, will be making exactly the same case against Romney, pointing to his record in Massachusetts and his contradictory statements on the campaign trail.
Mitt's basic problem is that he's been campaigning for the past three or four years as a Republican "sheep in wolf's clothing." Knowing how weak his Massachusetts record is with the true conservatives, Mitt has been bending over backwards trying to spout right-wing fire and brimstone on the campaign trail in an effort to portray himself as much more conservative than he actually is. To a certain degree, this has paid off for him, but Republican voters still have a hefty amount of doubt on this score. The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has been stockpiling clips of all of Mitt's most extreme statements to use against him in the fall campaign (which is exactly what the interviewer was asking Mitt's aide about).
In 2004, Republicans at their national convention gleefully waved flip-flops every time John Kerry's name was mentioned. Perhaps this year, we'll see Democrats waving mini Etch A Sketches at their convention, to mock Mitt.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant