‘Etch A Sketch’ leaves a mark on Mitt

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Just yesterday, I was lamenting how the need to find (invent?) content to fill a 24-hour news cycle leads the political punditocracy to obsess on otherwise trivial matters — especially when they confirm preexisting narratives about a candidate.

Then, right on cue, this happened.

While this is probably an example of the press blowing something out of proportion (the fact that he mentioned Etch-a-Sketch made it irresistible!), there are legitimate reasons why this has become such a hot a topic of discussion.

First, of course, there is the fact that Mitt Romney has obviously changed positions on a number of core issues. A decade ago, for example, he was insisting that he was solidly pro-choice. It’s not absurd for conservatives to wonder whether or not Romney has had a sincere political conversion — or if he is simply being a good businessman, selling the target audience the positions he thinks they want to buy. This gaffe reinforces that fear.

Second — and this is admittedly superficialEric Fehrnstrom (the Romney adviser who committed the gaffe) is probably the last person who should be serving as a Romney surrogate. He seems smart, to be sure. But he doesn’t seem likeable — and he certainly doesn’t “feel” conservative. He feels more … metrosexual (maybe it’s the glasses?)

This wouldn’t matter if Fehrnstrom were running a senate campaign in Massachusetts, or if he were flacking for, say, Haley Barbour. In that case, Fehrnstrom might actually provide balance. But Romney already has an optics problem with conservatives. And Fehrnstrom doesn’t soften that problem — he reinforces it.

There’s also this: Somewhere along the line, it became fashionable for political strategists to go on TV as surrogates. This is often a bad idea. There’s a reason strategists become strategists (and not candidates). They make the sausage. And the guy who makes the sausage isn’t always the best public face.

Interestingly, though, none of this would matter if Team Romney had done a better job of reaching out to conservative influencers, who could have tamped down on this story by declaring it a big nothing burger.

As I’ve noted before, Romney’s campaign has made a strategic decision to be aloof — which is actually better than their other mode — which is to be antagonistic. But this has consequences. There is no reservoir of goodwill, for which they can draw. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt.

It didn’t have to be this way. Imagine for a moment what would happen if one of Marco Rubio’s aides made a similarly silly statement, which was then seized on by the DNC or a liberal media outlet. Does anyone think it would metastasize into a mess that would dominate a news cycle?

Everyone from Erick Erickson — to Ed Morrissey — to Jennifer Rubin — would have probably taken to their blogs and to Twitter — insisting it was a big nothing burger. Center-right journalists and conservative bloggers and social media mavens would have pushed back on the narrative at a fast and furious pace. But Rubio has gone out of his way to develop relationships with conservatives (including hosting a meeting with about a dozen conservative writers at CPAC.)

The story would have gone nowhere.

Matt K. Lewis