Senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom appeared on CNN this morning and was asked if the campaign is concerned that the governor's primary opponents are dragging the front-runner "so far to the right, it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election." Fehrnstrom's response was...interesting:
"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 restart all over again."
Setting aside the point that this line of MSM questioning is almost exclusively reserved for Republicans, the quote in question represents something of a political Rohrschach test. Conservatives who are mistrustful of Romney will say Fehrnstrom's statement confirms their greatest fear: That Romney is playing the role of a conservative for the moment, but is eager to wash his hands of all that unpleasantness in the general election -- and in the White House. The Washington Examiner's Phil Klein gives voice to this sizable contingent:
This is an incredible admission and a window into the way Romney views politics. Romney ran two races in Massachusetts as a moderate and even a self-described "progressive," before changing his positions in the run up to his first campaign for president. Just last month, he described himself as "severely conservative" at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But as Fehrnstrom statement suggests, Romney's appeals to the right are simply a matter of positioning rather than principle, something that can easily be changed once the target audience changes. If Romney's fiercest critics wanted to come up with a way to describe Romney's approach to politics, I don't think they could have come up with a better analogy than Etch A Sketch. The fact that it's coming from one of Romney's long-time aides is stunning. An even scarier thought for conservatives: if the Romney campaign is willing to take them for granted before even clinching the nomination, imagine how quickly Romney would abandon conservatives if he ever made it to the White House.
Defenders of Romney will say this kerfuffle is much ado about nothing; that Fehrnstrom was simply articulating a political reality. Campaigns always make a strategic pivot to a general election, which typically involves re-introducing the candidate to the public at large and crafting a broader message. In other words, they'll argue, Fehrnstrom was talking about messaging and tactics, not ideology and strategy. Yahoo News notes that Romney himself has been using post-primary "reset" language over the last few weeks. Meanwhile, liberals on Twitter are giddy that their likely opponent's own team has inadvertently introduced an image that perfectly captures one of the attacks they plan to employ down the campaign's home stretch -- "Mitt Romney is a shape-shifting, shameless flip-flopper." Notice which organization posted the YouTube video embedded in this post.
I personally fall somewhere in between the two conservative camps on this one. I've raised serious doubts as to whether Mitt Romney is really the born-again committed conservative he claims to be, and I maintain many of those concerns. Given Romney's long record of changing positions and the resulting avalanche of criticism, Romney's campaign should be acutely aware of jitters regarding their guy's fealty to the movement's animating ideas. That reality is what makes Fehrnstrom's formulation on CNN so astonishingly foolish. I know from personal experience that live TV can be pressure-filled and dizzyingly fast-paced at times, so I can empathize with foot-in-mouth moments. That being said, this is the biggest of leagues, and major missteps are costly. One of Mitt Romney's closest aides has managed to extend the campaign's habit of poisoning their own post-election victory lap by committing a seismic unforced error, andTeam Santorum is rightly disseminating this clip far and wide, breathing oxygen into their life-support campaign.
On the other hand, I tend to think Fehrnstrom really was just referring to the natural evolutionary step that virtually every campaign takes between an internecine nominating fight and a fall election. If Mitt Romney wants to win the nomination and general election -- let alone get re-elected -- he simply cannot afford to lose conservatives. Case in point: President Bush lost conservatives in his second term and limped out of office with a dismal approval rating. For this reason, I can't quite swallow the implausible idea that Romney's inner circle is harboring some secret plot to alienate and abandon conservatives just as soon as the primary is wrapped up.
A final point on soulless flip-floppery: To a large extent, this criticism can also be used against Barack Obama, whose public image and "principles" have long been dictated by political expediency. The man who was a hardcore Leftist organizer and sharp-elbowed Southside pol transformed himself into a post-partisan healer for public consumption in 2008. Since then, he's reversed himself on a long string of issues, from public financing of elections, to healthcare mandates, to taxing employer-provided insurance, to closing Gitmo, to raising the debt ceiling, to hiking taxes on families earning less than $250K, to hiring lobbyists, to "unprecedented" transparency, to the mortal threat of SuperPACs. Hell, the guy's entire 2008 image has been exposed as a fraud, forcing his team to run a 2012 race based on turning out their base and eviscerating their opponent. Remember, Obama offered up an epic "Etch-A-Sketch" admission of his own when he wrote his (second!) autobiography, The Audacity of Hope:
"I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."
That's not a defense of Romney, but it is an indictment on Obama -- the man liberals plan to paint as the paragon of consistency compared to his Republican rival.
UPDATE - Heh: