Two lessons can be drawn from the latest gaffe afflicting Mitt Romney's campaign: No one gets the benefit of the doubt in the harsh world of presidential politics, and everyone assumes the worst.
The furor began when Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom seemed to suggest that Romney would start fresh after he secures the Republican presidential nomination and might abandon the conservative positions he has taken in the primaries. "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Fehrnstrom told CNN Wednesday after being asked if Romney's conservative stances in the primaries would hurt him with moderates this fall. "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." He was referring to the classic toy that lets the user draw images or write words and then erase them with a shake of the toy.
With those comments, Fehrnstrom handed Romney's critics another weapon with which to bludgeon him as a flip-flopper who changes his views to advance his political career--a charge that has hurt Romney in the current campaign. The fuss came at a particularly bad time for Romney, because he had been basking in the glow of a victory in the Illinois primary Tuesday, which seemed to create new momentum for his campaign, and he was relishing the much-sought-after endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But the Etch-A-Sketch furor to some extent crowded the other news out of the media and was, at minimum, a distraction from the positive news.
And like other controversies that seem to take on a life of their own, the reason this story is potentially damaging to Romney is because there is a subtext that the incident seems to reinforce—the perception that Romney bends with the political winds and can't be trusted to hold a position from one day to the next. Fehrnstrom said his remarks were being misinterpreted, but Romney's critics pounced.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another GOP presidential candidate, declared, "Here's Governor Romney's staff, they don't even have the decency to wait until they get the nomination to explain to us how they'll sell us out. And I think having an Etch-A-Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we're going."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is also seeking the GOP presidential nomination, said the episode proved that, "Governor Romney is interested in saying whatever is necessary to win the election and when the game changes, he'll change."
The Democratic National Committee quickly produced a web video mocking Romney and Fehrnstrom, and E-mailed reporters five pages of media analysis and commentary that pillored the Romney campaign over the incident.
"We knew Mitt Romney had no core, but today his campaign confirmed it," said a DNC spokesman.
Romney tried ignoring the furor at a town hall meeting near Baltimore, Maryland, then thought better of it. He told reporters afterward, "The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican nominee--hopefully, nominee at that point. The policies and the positions are the same.'"
Outside the event, an aide to Santorum was distributing miniature Etch-A-Sketchs to people in the parking lot.