Michael Wolraich's picture

    When Etch A Sketches Go Bad

    Mitt Romney is in a bind. He must present himself as a staunch conservative in order to appeal to skeptical right-wing voters in the Republican presidential primary, but if he plays it too conservative, he'll alienate moderate voters in the general election.

    Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom is not overly concerned, though. On Wednesday, he expressed confidence the campaign would hit the "reset button" after the nomination and redraw Romney as a moderate candidate.

    "Everything changes," he explained on CNN, "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."

    Fehrnstrom's comparison of his boss' campaign to a toy tablet ignited a political firestorm. Internet wags imagined Mitt Romney as an Etch A Sketch drawing, while his primary opponents, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, gleefully brandished Etch A Sketches at campaign events. Romney rushed to contain the damage by promising to be a true conservative forever.

    It won't work.

    Fehrnstrom has accidentally stumbled on something profound. He may not have much experience with Etch A Sketch technology. With all due respect to that iconic American toy, its legendary reset abilities have never been quite up to scratch. Dark smudges tend to mar the perimeter of its silvery slate, and no matter how vigorously you shake the thing, you can never quite obliterate the residue. Even so, the real-life Etch A Sketch in all its splotchy glory actually offers a better metaphor for American politics than the fantasy of a clean post-primary slate.

    Read the full article at CNN.com



    Why Mitt Romney's "Etch a Sketch" Moment Matters

    The imagery of an “Etch a Sketch” will follow Mr. Romney for the rest of his campaign. Will it doom his candidacy? I wouldn’t go that far. But when candidates reinforce the worst fears about themselves with a gaffe that turns them into a caricature, it’s near-impossible to reverse the narrative.

    Just how potent is the Etch a Sketch image? Consider these four losing candidates for office who became their own worst enemies:

    I forgot about the Dukakis photo. That was a doozy.

    The lying fuckers. How else was Gore supposed to describe his work in Congress on the internet in a quick summary, without turning it into a 5-minute bio of Vince Cerf? Without someone in Congress pushing & funding civilian use of internet, it would have stayed a DOD / university research project. Tesla invented AC current, but George Westinghouse funded it and built it.

    The public wasn't outraged by Gore's statement - the media hammered on it and played it up, just like the Carlton-Ritz, work on the farm, the made up "earth tones", etc.

    To be fair, they did the same with George Bush and the checkout scanner. The only real example from the 4 was Mike Dukakis looking like Snoopy playing the Red Baron, and that was simply optics - W or Obama or Clinton physically would have looked fine. Ross Perot or Ron Paul would look silly. Sue him for being short.

    But the part out of the Karl Rove playbook is taking a person's strength and turning it into an anchor around their neck. Gore couldn't talk about internet, global warming, FEMA, or the economy, and instead got stuck with social security and old folks' prescriptions.

    PS - Genghis - the Clinton promise was fairly accurate - he did cut the size of government by hundreds of thousands, and put roughly 70K-80K more police in the street. 



    Yeah, the Clinton quote was a little bit of a fudge, but my point was more about what people remember candidates for rather than who stuck with which promise.

    As for Gore, the media can popularize an idea, but they can't force a label on a candidate. Labels, quotes, and anecdotes stick when they fit perceptions, and as I wrote in the piece, the fairness of the label is beside the point. The Internet thing stuck to Gore because people perceived him as a pompous blowhard. Was the quote out of context? Was he no more self-important than Bush? It doesn't really matter. People repeated the line everywhere--not just in the media--because it was funny and fit their perception of the guy.

    Oh come on now, you don't think labels are self-reinforcing?

    In Alabama, Karl Rove started a whisper campaign about a successful politician being a child molester, and suddenly "it fit people's perceptions", unlike his previous 20 years of government service when no one noticed the (unfounded) resemblance to a child molester?

    Look at this clip objectively and tell me Gore's more of a blowhard than Clinton, Bush, Obama, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, Newt Gingrich, Ross Perot, John Edwards or Howard Dean? Much less Maureen Dowd, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Drudge?


    If you look at the stories - whether Gore pushed legislation to create the internet, whether he was 1 of two composites for Love Story, whether he worked summers on his Tennessee farm, whether he was the first to hold federal hearins on toxic waste, whether he brought on an advisor to make him wear "earth tones" - we start to figure out who are the serial exaggerators and it's not him. 

    (example: the Times & Post changing "that was the one that started it all" to "I was the one that started it all":

     http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2000/0004.parry.html   )

    So the Kool Kidz on the bus get to make up their stories Beavis 'n Butthead style, but Gore who has some serious accomplishments becomes the "exaggerator" and "blowhard".

    Does it matter? Yes. As Bob Somerby notes, it put Bush in the White House which led to our national meltdown post-9/11 plus war in Iraq. It kept us focused on Howard's "Scream" (that CNN re-mixed to make sound worse) and his doctor wife not campaigning, rather than his anti-war platform. It got us to worry about John Kerry's acting French and windsurfing rather than whether he would restore respect for the Constitution. It gets us thinking about how Sarah Palin winks and whether she had a disabled kid up past his bedtime, rather than whether her foreign policy ideas are dangerous or whether there's a huge bank default coming. It gets us thinking about some dog Romney had 30 years ago, rather than the malfeasance of stripping companies bare and dropping the obligations on the taxpayer.

    Sorry, it's not funny, and as any magician knows, "perceptions" can be easily manipulated.

    Perceptions can be manipulated...but not easily. If it were easy, Gore wouldn't have been stuck with the exaggerator label, G.W. wouldn't have been seen as a class dunce, Obama wouldn't seem like such a weakling, and Romney wouldn't be such an Etch a Sketch.

    To manipulate effectively, you have to work with the material. If Gore didn't seem like a guy with an inflated ego, the charges would never have stuck. If Romney didn't seem like such a pandering used-car-salesman, the Etch A Sketch thing would go away after a couple of shakes.

    The Etch-A-Sketch thing fits every candidate who runs the primaries then the generals. Gore had to play the populist liberal running against Bradley, then turn around and be fiscal responsibility against Bush.

    I'm really challenged trying to consider Gore as having a bigger ego than Michael Bloomberg or Rudy Guliani or Joe Lieberman or Mr. John "Maverick" McCain. Okay, Bloomberg as well built something - what did the others do?

    Jesse Jackson? Bill "I'm the Rhodes Scholar" Bradley? Pat "I'm so erudite" Moynihan? Rahm Emanuel? I like Alan Grayson, but whoa nellie, what an ego. Hermann Cain? 

    Actually, I think the confusion is that Al Gore was less comfortable building himself up, so it's more discomfiting watching him have to sell his work, while Giuliani is like watching a dog roll in birdshit, just a natural habitat - a noun, a verb, a mini-documentary.

    And comparing Gore to G.W. is unfair - G.W. tripped all over the English language every time he spoke - "fool me twice...won't get fooled again" and what not - it's all on video tape. Regarding Gore, well, he did produce legislation that pushed internet from military into public service. He was one of 2 models for Love Story. He did work the farm in Tennessee. He did hold the first federal hearings on toxic waste. He did have excellent oversight of FEMA when 3 hurricanes hit Florida in a month. Even the famous Buddhist Temple line - "no controlling legal authority" - ain't that a cute little scandal when Karl Rove just wipes masses of emails he's supposed to preserve and no one gives a damn, or when presidents and VPs now invent constitutional authority to ignore congressional oversight or permanent extra-judicial incarceration or targeted assassinations of American citizens or firing all the US attorneys for political stacking.

    Sorry, ain't buying it. It was a hatchet job, and the fact that liberal Democrats still buy this crap is one huge reason why our system is still in the toilet.

    A big part of politics is defining the candidate. If you're running a campaign, your objective is to define your own candidate positively and his opponent negatively. There is a real art to spinning someone's attributes or flaws into an caricature that resonates. Good candidates naturally resist negative definitions. Poor candidates tend to attract them.

    Meanwhile, the media is also trying to define the candidates for different reasons. They're earning money by telling a story that entertains audiences and simplifies the complexity of the election. In 2000, the story was the dork versus the dunce. In 2012, the Republican primary story is the nutcase versus the opportunist. I think that Romney is more of an opportunist than Santorum is principled, but it doesn't really matter. Regardless of the story's accuracy, it's working.

    Now you can rail against politics as usual and shout about how we're all being duped by whomever you feel is duping us, but these narratives are powerful. You can't argue your way out of a good story.

    Your argument is self-fulfilling. "Good candidates naturally resist negative definitions" - and if they don't, then they're de facto bad candidates?

    Good looking candidates have an advantage over bad looking candidates (unless you're female, in which case both will be held against you). 

    Let's rephrase your statement slightly: "There is a real art to bullshitting someone's attributes or flaws into an caricature that resonates."

    Was George H.W. Bush really astounded by that checkout scanner, and did it really say something insightful based on his New England background, oil connections and CIA days? Or was it simply a useful prop in a traditional "old guy vs. young guy" contest to make fund of the older one as out-of-date and not hip? Did it say anything meaningful about Bush's role in Iran Contra or his excellent job running Gulf War I the year before or whether he'd help dig our way out of the short recession?

    Was focusing on John Edwards' hair a breakthrough in political analysis, or was it just a cheap shot that ignored the more important flaws in his character, foundation for the poor, etc.?

    Were the Swift Boat attacks reflective of John Kerry's character, providing us all a service, or were they turning a candidate's strengths into detriments through cheap manipulation and lies?

    Was W's purchase of a "ranch" (with no cattle) 2 years before a presidential run a natural move exposing his inner cowboy nature, or a cheap exploitive prop that the press bought into just as they'd enjoyed Reagan's ranch?

    You say it's hard  to manipulate, but it's actually pretty easy - just fickle. If the candidate keeps feeding good stories - bullshit - to the press, they make the work easier, write the stories themselves. The press is always looking for a simply, funny, smartass way of describing the campaigns, and once they settle on a story, they don't switch for a while - they bludgeon it into the readers' subconscious.

    As you say, "Regardless of the story's accuracy, it's working." 

    Well there you go - the truth goes wanting, but we got our telenovela - Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggerman, Thief.

    "Now you can rail against politics as usual and shout about how we're all being duped by whomever you feel is duping us, but these narratives are powerful. You can't argue your way out of a good story."

    You're the one claiming these stories say something serious about candidates, that it's not easy to make stuff up that's not true, but then you say "narratives are powerful" and "you can't argue your way out of a good story"? Which is it? 

    Look at how James O'Keefe knocked down Acorn - a bullshit pimp outfit that he didn't even wear to the organization - but the press ran with it as good fun, leaving out pertinent facts to make the story better, as he knew they would. And Acorn couldn't argue their way out of a good story.

    Yes, Reagan ran on the welfare queen image of blacks in America, to great success. There's a real art to spinning the defenseless' character into shredded wheat and riding that humiliation to success.

    What I think you're describing is simply caricature - candidates and media work with basic snippets that contain a teensy portion of the truth, and blow it up into a campaign theme. The less relevant, the better - like our Dowdian psychologist, who shows we understand the psyches of our candidates when we can discern why they wear 2-button jackets instead of 3-button jackets, or supposedly wear earth tones and cowboy boots vs. some other attire, and how that chink in the armor reflects on their suitability for office.

    So we focus on who we'd rather have a beer with or whether a candidate might be Muslim and a non-American Kenyan. Glad it's so hard to make up an impression of a candidate.



    In a modern society with a vast population there is always going to be a dance between the media, politicians, and the public that ends up being some grotesque performance.  Up there on the stage: The media driven by the desire for profits (among other things), the politicians driven by the desire to be elected (among other things), the public driven by a desire to be entertained (among other things).  We really can't expect anything other than what we see.  One can fix more blame on one more than the other, but it really is a futile attempt to gain some sense of order.  One only has to look at the pamphlet wars in the early political days of our new Republic to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    The thing to focus on isn't that there are still large number of folks who believe that Obama is a Muslim, but that such a candidate can still win a presidential election.

    Of course it's caricature. That's the whole point. There is little disagreement here about .

    1) You think that caricature is unconstrained, that if you just smear someone long enough or cleverly enough, you can make them into whatever you want. I say that caricature must start with an element of perceived truth, "perceived" being a critical caveat.

    2) You think that caricature is inherently pernicious. I think that it is often pernicious--welfare and Acorn being great examples--but can also serve a valuable purpose by emphasizing a critical flaw. GW as "cowboy," for example, emphasizes his reckless swagger. GW as "dunce" emphasizes his lack of critical thinking. GW as "princeling" emphasizes his elitism. GW as "oilman" emphasizes his industrial bias. These are all caricatures, exaggerations that mask the complexity (yes, even GW has complexity), but they reveal elements of his governing style

    3) You think that caricature is some recent spawn of shallow, namby-pamby modern journalism. But it's as old as democracy. Probably older. Do you think that the old hard-hitting muckrakers of the progressive era weren't caricaturists? Try reading them.

    If you smear someone long enough, you can make Sarah Palin a whore, Obama a foreign-born Muslim, Hillary a vicious killer of Vince Foster who hangs dildos from the Christmas Tree and drinks her own urine, John Kerry a coward who ran from service and faked his medals, George H.W. Bush an uncaring politician because he looked at his watch, and Al Gore an insecure politician who hired a consultant to tell him to wear earth tones.

    In your X-Files theory, these tricks work only because there's a bit of truth in there somewhere Though they spent $30 million investigating Clinton for Whitewater and never found that truth. For some reason you can't accept that sometimes "caricature" is just brazen, made-up bullshit. That still works if echoed long enough on 5 different channels. Was Acorn really helping out prostitutes while a pimp in full regalia stood by? Was there truth in there somewhere because this caricature took off in conservative-land? Would there have been truth in there if he had trapped the CNN reporter on a boat of sex toys?

    Regarding George Bush as cowboy? He made up his own image with ranch and cowboy hat and attitude. Dunce? He mispronounced words and came up with malapropisms dozens of time on TV and public speeches. Oilman? Well he was, whether he was terribly successful or not. Where's the caricature, vs. saying Gore wasn't really from Tennessee because he'd gone to prep school in the northeast?

    I don't by any means think caricature is new, whether it's the Nash cartoons in the 1800's or stuff written on Pompei bath stalls before the eruption. And caricature can be more or less accurate, it can be biting and over-the-top but still representative (Gulliver's Travels?), and it can be libel and slander, based on nothing but fantasies. For some reason, we've invested our media with the duty of just making stuff up, and then backing their right to do it. Not healthy for a democracy, since they don't have our best interests in mind.

    As for Etch-a-Sketch, it's as boring as calling John Kerry a flip-flopper because he voted against it before he voted for it - something most every congressperson does. I'd rather see an intelligent caricature that sticks showing Romney stripping corporations of their assets and dumping the carcass and obligations on the American taxpayer. That would be a service. 

    DoubleP, con respetto Gore had a goodie stick shoved so far up his ass that he farted sparkles. His pearl clutching distaste for Bad Boy Bill & His Blowjobs caused him to run away from a winning record, more to the detriment of his campaign than any media mistreatment. A thought experiment: Clint Eastwood (once mayor of Carmel) runs for president. The media "buzz" is verbatim that attending Gore. Does it stick?

    D'accordo! And that's not to say he didn't appear to be a good guy with a good heart, just very very wooden, uptight, whatevah you wanna call it......

    Some of the old toons on that  meme still make me laugh; two examples from Al's personal collection (from Clinton's first term, way pre-dating any Gore presidential campaign):



    I shook j f k's hand too but all I got was a propensity to fuck around

    I like Clint as a human, politician, libertarian, director. But Clint isn't geeky enough to sit down and make good internet and toxic waste and government waste policy over a decade or three in Congress and the White House

    So we're comparing apples and oranges. 

    Yes, Gore is a bit robotic and goofy. Big shit. He has much better ideas for federal government than Clint will ever have. If we won't defend our better candidates against lies, then we deserve the "guy we'd rather have a beer with", even if that's an alcoholic who's given up drink and has lots of dumb ideas.

    Note that the "robotic Al" jokes are describing Al Gore, not made up like the stuff about being a serial liar. His hokey southern robotic manners  would have an effect on his management style and communications with the public, so it is relevant to candidacy (though he might be a more effective staff handler than the chaotic Bill Clinton). And if you notice, the cartoons shown are not abusive - they're just playful.

    Whether Gore had to run away from Clinton's blowjobs, or felt truly offended - I don't rightly care. Finding the right way of handling Clinton fatigue was not a trivial problem for him, and he was working against multiple hostile press narratives his whole campaign. Even kissing his wife was used against him. What a bunch of bastards.

    (BTW, Bush lied about his Social Security promises, and it was an obvious lie when he said it - but the press didn't care. They were too busy hacking out 7th-grader narratives that they wouldn't have to fact check - that would be work and all.)


    Nice column, G.

    I think you're right about the pithiness of the Etch-a-Sketch line, and how it will stick. Of course, one reason it's so pithy is that it comes from one of Romney's own hired communications professionals. I don't think I can remember another gaffe this big by the candidate's handlers instead of the candidate. That's a bad campaign.

    I also think Etch-a-Sketch will stick, like so many gaffes, because it crystallizes something voters already believe about the candidate.


    Thanks, Doc

    Romney needs to dump Fehrnstrom and hire Buddy the Elf.

    Republicans need to dump Romney and nominate Buddy the Elf.

    It really is a brilliant metaphor for Romney (IMO).  The fact that it's a toy and what it represents is, well, a perfect representation.

    I agree, that this analogy is going to be difficult to erase and shake off (pun intended).

    The satirists couldn't have come up with a better one. I was thinking that Etch-a-Sketch would be the perfect Doonesbury representation for Romney. Maybe it will

    Perhaps if Romney sees a vision of Jesus in his etch a sketch, and finds the true Christian God, his campaign could undergo revival, as he is born again as an evangelical, flip flopping religions in a final denouement of his candidacy


    Etch A Sketch Highlights Missed Opportunities for Romney’s Rivals

    I’m sympathetic to the notion that the news media’s coverage of the Etch A Sketch comments made by one of Mr. Romney’s top aides has been excessive. At the same time, the comments made by the adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, will serve to remind voters of a major issue in the campaign: that Mr. Romney has substantially altered his positions on a wide range of issues since he ran for governor in Massachusetts in 2002.

    Almost all presidential candidates shift their positions on some issues — toward the party base in the primaries, and then toward the center of the electorate if they receive the nomination. But there is not a lot of precedent for a presidential candidate whose shifts were so recent and broad-based.

    I itched to etch

    To etch a sketch

    And much to my surprise


    I dialed the dials

    For a little while

    And dialed a profile


    And the profile

    Came to haunt me

    per perfidity

    Who am I after all

    Etch a Sketch

    Thinks me a wretch




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