In gaffe lies truth: the Etch-a-Sketch blunder

As a former journalist turned communications strategist, I look at Mitt Romney’s right hand man Eric Fehrnstrom and think there but for the grace of God go I. It’s the same feeling one gets in hearing of someone deeply embarrassed by hitting the send button before realizing his or her damaging email is misdirected. Whether it’s electronic error or foot-in-mouth disease, we’ve all been there, unless we’re robots. As columnist Michael Kinsley once observed, a gaffe is someone telling the truth by accident. Or something like that.

Asked to comment on whether his candidate’s primary strategy makes running in the general election more difficult, Fehrnstrom said no, it was just a question of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch screen and resetting things. He later said he was talking about campaign tactical strategy, not message, but it was too late. The other candidates were passing out samples of the children’s staple, and noting that the statement proves the Etch-a-Sketch candidate isn’t a tried and true conservative.

These days, there’s a particular challenge for any candidate in a contested primary, having to play to the party’s activist ideological base and then pivot to appeal to the independents and moderates who vote in – and can swing – a general election. This has been especially true for Romney, who has been tarred nationally for his support of Romney-Care, arguably his single greatest accomplishment as Massachusetts governor. But he has had numerous other reversals as well, all of which President Obama will be sure to elucidate in the fall. Obama has some of his own. Think Guantanamo, unemployment and deficit targets. Are these really flip-flops, or a genuine rightward evolution of political philosophy over time?

Certainly Democrats and Independents who voted for Romney for governor hardly recognize the candidate they supported.

But the underlying truth to Fehrnstrom echoes a message my husband heard from a Romney fundraiser. The fellow was trying to persuade my husband to donate to the campaign. My husband asked “Why should I support Romney?” The answer: “Romney doesn’t really believe the things he’s saying.”

Individuals, corporations and politicians all shape their messages to optimize impact. Communications strategists help them do it. What you say and don’t say has consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unintended. Ironically, given the lopsided delegate count, Fehrnstrom’s comments may help Romney position himself in the general election, and then Fehrnstrom will be celebrated as the wizard. If not, the Etch-a-Sketch comment may go down in the annals of campaign lore along with the images of Michael Dukakis in the tank and John Kerry wind-surfing.

photo Politico
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

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