The remark lasted only a moment, yet the metaphor may haunt Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney for months or even years.
When one of his top advisers compared this year’s race to a children’s toy that can be shaken to erase what’s on its surface, the Etch A Sketch became for Romney what flip-flops sandals and combat helmets were for presidential contenders before him -- a potentially unshakable image that encapsulates the chief criticism of his candidacy.
The comment, by his longtime aide Eric Fehrnstrom on CNN, played into his presidential adversaries’ assessments of Romney as a shape-shifting politician who switches policy positions to court voters. Democrats and Republicans alike rushed to procure the red plastic tablet with white knobs to brandish at campaign events, on television and in Internet videos as a visual to drive home their contention that Romney can’t be trusted.
“The power of metaphor is the moment that’s bigger than the moment itself -- it’s the one instance that tells you the whole story -- and that’s what this was,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated with a campaign.
He compared Romney’s Etch A Sketch woes to a moment from the 1988 presidential campaign, when former Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis -- perceived as being weak on defense -- rode around in a tank, wearing a smile under a combat helmet while visiting a factory in Michigan. Republicans criticized Dukakis for turning his tour in war machinery into a political photo-op. He lost to George H.W. Bush.
Revealing Something True
“When Michael Dukakis got into his tank with his little helmet, it didn’t feel like he was large enough and strong enough for the job of commander in chief. It didn’t cut a new wound, but it opened an old one and revealed something big and true,” Castellanos said, adding that the Etch A Sketch comment had the same effect.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry could never shake the moniker of “flip-flopper,” bestowed by Republicans during his unsuccessful 2004 presidential bid after he tried inartfully to explain why he had switched positions on a military funding bill.
In October 2003, Kerry initially supported $87 billion for the military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, then opposed it in its final form. “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” he later said, a sentence that was instantly featured in political attack ads.
Hostile voters would wave the flat-soled sandals at campaign rallies, and more than a few people showed up dressed as life-sized flip-flops. Dana Perino, then a spokeswoman for his Republican rival President George W. Bush, trained her dog, a Viszla named Henry, to fetch the shoes whenever she asked what he thought about Kerry.
Twelve years earlier, Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, played into a stereotype of him as an elitist out of touch with everyday Americans when he examined a supermarket barcode scanner and appeared to be amazed, years after stores had begun using such devices.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle, who served with the senior Bush, never lived down his reputation as an intellectual lightweight, seemingly confirmed when he visited a Trenton, New Jersey, classroom and told a sixth grader he had left the “e” off the end of the word “potato.”
The photograph of Quayle, the student and his teacher gazing at the word written on a chalkboard became a classic, and buttons were soon produced with an image of Quayle and the expression: “This Spud’s For You! Mr. Potatoe”
Quayle’s Potato Regrets
“It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable,” Quayle would later write in his autobiography, “Standing Firm.” “Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite.”
In the case of Romney, who has had his share of gaffes during the campaign, the slip-up in question this time wasn’t his. Fehrnstrom -- asked whether he was worried that Romney was being forced to take extreme positions in the Republican primary that would hurt him with independent voters in a race against President Barack Obama -- tried to make the point that the general election is a new arena.
“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 clip went viral on the Internet and dominated cable television, the staffs for Romney’s rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, quickly procured Etch A Sketches -- known to generations of American children since its 1960 release -- to stoke the media coverage.
Shares of Ohio Art Co., the Bryan, Ohio company that makes the toy, soared to a nine-year high yesterday before settling in at more than double what they had been when Fehrnstrom opened his mouth.
“When you’ve got something that’s such a simple, well-known popular-culture item that fits into this negative narrative of Romney being somebody who constantly remakes himself to fit the political environment, it’s really damaging,” said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic media consultant who isn’t associated with the Obama re-election campaign. “It’s very hard to escape something like this -- it’s just a gold mine for the opposition.”
Romney initially ignored shouted questions about Fehrnstrom’s comment at a March 20 event, only to relent and gather reporters to declare that his “policies and positions” wouldn’t change after the primary.
“Organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile,” Romney said, refusing to take additional questions on the subject or what it might say about his candidacy. “The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same. I’m running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I’ll be running as a conservative Republican nominee.”
His assurances did nothing to ease his opponents’ enthusiasm for the Etch A Sketch metaphor.
By late yesterday, the Democratic National Committee had distributed more than 20 e-mails to reporters about the episode and made an Etch A Sketch image of Romney a banner across the top of its website. It also produced several videos on the subject, including one that ended with an image of these words on the toy: “Mitt Romney is trying to scrub his extreme record ... but there are some things you can’t shake off.”
Gingrich produced a new website, sketchyromney.com, complete with a mock “Mitt’s Etch A Sketch Principles” gadget that included a “shake” button that produced images of Romney and the word “Conservative,” then “Moderate,” then “Severely conservative ” -- a description the front-runner used Feb. 10 when speaking to Republican activists.
A video posted on the Gingrich site juxtaposes recent footage of Romney saying he supports gun rights and opposes abortion rights with older clips from his time as Massachusetts governor when he describes himself as supportive of abortion rights and gun control laws.
Castellanos said he expects the potency of the metaphor to wane as the Republican primary draws to a close and the party turns to the task of defeating Obama. Carrick disagreed.
Fehrnstrom “was caught at being too good at spinning the imagery,” Carrick said. “I’m afraid this is going to be hanging around for a while.”