Friday, March 23, 2012

Pretty sketchy

THE Obama 2012 re-election campaign, the field of Republican challengers for the nomination, and the Ohio Art Company of Bryan, Ohio, all owe a debt of gratitude to one of the top advisers to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

In one accidentally revealing rhetorical quip, that adviser unmistakably distilled in an instant what political observers and millions of Americans have been saying about Romney for months, if not years: In his tireless pursuit of the presidency, the former Massachusetts governor is a man, and a candidate, of many guises.

On Wednesday, dissecting Romney’s lopsided wins in the Puerto Rico and Illinois primaries, Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was interviewed by John Fugelsang, a self-described “political comedian” working with (and on) CNN.

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Part of the interview hinged on the dilemma of Romney’s relentless tacking to the political right, and its possible impact on the public’s perception of the candidate after the primary season is over.

Fugelsang: Is there a concern that the pressure from [former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum and [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right, it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?”

Fehrnstrom: “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 start all over again. ...”

In that moment, Romney’s goofily quixotic quest for that campaign’s prize of nomination, and what he’d do to achieve that prize, was crystal clear like never before.

Followers of the campaign — the punditburo, the analyst corps, the political cartoonists — had been looking for something brief and pithy and devastatingly effective to boil down the Romney political identity. Ironically enough, they found it, not as a result of endless oppo research, but from the mouth of an adviser to the Romney campaign itself.

One Etch A Sketch: $11. Impact on the GOP race: Priceless.

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Rick Tyler, a honcho with the Gingrich SuperPAC, got the ball rolling that evening on MSNBC: “The reason it’s been playing all day is that it just rings so true. We’ve always suspected it. I’ll predict by tomorrow morning, we’ll have an Etch A Sketch ad on YouTube — you know, ‘turn a little to the right, turn a little to the left, Romney will be however you want him to be …”

Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post said much the same thing on MSNBC on Thursday. “It’s so utterly apt, it’s going to stick to him from now on.”

Michael Wolraich, founder of, grasped what it means in a piece at “The Etch A Sketch perfectly captures voters' perception of Mitt Romney as an opportunistic politician anxious to redraw himself according to the political requirements of the moment, a man who leans left in Massachusetts and right in Mississippi. The notion provokes the mistrust of conservatives, the cynicism of moderates and the amusement of liberals.”

Joe Klein, writing in Time Magazine, clearly understood what’s happened:

“There is a gestalt to every campaign, a deep organic spirit. Kerry’s campaign was infected by the candidate’s indecision about what to do regarding the war in Iraq. Bill Clinton’s campaign was propelled by his native resilience. George W. Bush succeeded because of his gormless certitude. The Obama campaign’s steadiness emanated from the candidate’s no-drama persona. In Romney’s case, this spirit expresses itself in embarrassing gaffes, often at the moment of victory — and it reflects the sterile management-consultancy ethos at the heart of the candidate.”

Santorum understands what it means too:

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YOU knew it was bad when Ann Romney, wife of the candidate and Romney campaign charm-offensive coordinator, had to climb out from behind the wheel of her two Cadillacs to go on the air to defend her Mitt from the slings and arrows of outrageous derision.

“This is exactly what happens in a campaign when you get these distractions,” she said Wednesday on “Piers Morgan Tonight” Wednesday. “Obviously, he was talking about how we’re going to change focus, and we’re going to change, you know, what we’re going to do in the organizational sense of changing. Not Mitt changing positions.”

That was bad enough. You knew it was really bad when the candidate himself felt compelled to do an interview with reporters to explain what Fehrnstrom really meant. Romney’s walkback, a towering blunder in itself, was one of the first times in memory that a candidate had to go before the cameras and explain what a campaign adviser had said on the candidate’s behalf.

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And there were other unintended consequences that arose from the unintended consequences of Fehrnstrom’s goof. The day he made his remarks, the OTC shares of the Ohio Art Company could be bought for $4 a share. The day after Fehrnstrom’s comment, shares of OART stock soared, closing at about $12 a pop.

It didn’t last, of course; wildcat events like that never do. By Friday, OART opened at $9.10 and ended the day and the week falling back further, to close at $6.90. But the offhand thinking of a campaign adviser had, for one brief shining moment, the kind of real positive impact on part of the economy that Romney’s been promising on the campaign trail for months.

No matter what the stock does in the future, though, you haven’t heard the last of this. Fehrnstrom’s gaffe will resonate in the minds of general election voters, as the man whom master Democratic strategist James Carville once memorably described as “a serial windsock” rewrites himself again and again … and the little red toy of our childhoods will symbolically inform the political conversation, like nothing else could.

Image credits: Etch A Sketch: © 2012 Ohio Art Company, via Fehrnstrom: CNN. Santorum: via The Huffington Post. Ohio Art Company stock chart:

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