Mock the Mitt Romney campaign if you will. But please, do not impugn the value and the very American symbolism of the Etch A Sketch.
Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom got into a little trouble recently by explaining quite frankly how the former Massachusetts governor would manage his message, going from appeasing the right wing during the primaries to appealing to a broader audience of independents in the general election, should he indeed win the nomination. Fehrnstrom said on CNN:
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 we can start all over again.
In Fehrnstrom's defense, he was right. This is what candidates in both parties do—whether it's softening a position on an issue or professing sudden love for someone you slammed as a primary foe, but who now is offering you his or her endorsement. It's not that Fehrnstrom was wrong. He just shouldn't have said it out loud. All candidates shake the proverbial Etch A Sketch, but Romney has a particular problem explaining why he has changed his views on such fundamental issues as abortion and gay rights.
Still, there is something wonderfully encouraging and inspiring about the Etch A Sketch. In an era of hi-tech, battery-draining toys with lights and annoying sounds, the Etch A Sketch endures as a reliable distraction for kids. I loved my childhood Etch A Sketch, which was second only to my Easy Bake Oven as my favorite toy (and that may well be more about the fact that I really liked cake, not that I enjoyed playing baker). Etch A Sketches are also great for helping young minds develop focus and discipline—a valuable lesson for parents who equip their kids with portable DVD players and iPads for even short car trips, then wonder why they have to keep pumping Ritalin into their children's systems.
But the best part of the Etch A Sketch is the inherent message of renewal and redemption. Make a mistake, and you can just shake it up and start again. It fosters creativity and experimentation—all the things that contribute to what is great about America. It shows that even when your screen is a squiggly mess, there's always another chance. It's why disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer got a televsion gig (and rightly lost it later on). It's why former Sen. Rick Santorum was waving his hands from the end of the row during early GOP primary debates, trying to get noticed, and now is Romney's biggest challenger for the Republican nomination. It's why, no matter how much my beloved Buffalo Bills may disappoint me in a given year, I start the next football season with a genuine sense of hope and promise.
Not everything erases easily or completely, of course, and candidates should be careful of comparisons. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign, on a website, is ridiculing Romney's Etch A Sketch policy flips. It's amusing, but it begs the question of how hard Gingrich had to shake his metaphorical Etch A Sketch to erase the two extramarital affairs (one while he was going after former President Clinton for an extramarital relationship), the ethics transgressions in Congress, the resignation from Congress after a dismal GOP showing in the 1998 elections, and the revolving $500,000 credit account he held at Tiffany's—all while criticizing President Obama for failing to lower unemployment enough.
Fehrnstrom was accurate in explaining how campaigns work, even if his frank observation didn't help his candidate. The quintessentially American philosophy behind the Etch A Sketch may well boost Romney's hopes this year. Or Republicans—with their proud elephant symbol—may not forget so easily.