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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

Why “Etch A Sketch” Matters   

Chuck Todd to the contrary, the flap over a Romney aide’s cynical remark deserved coverage. Thurs., March 22, 2012.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

I'm ordinarily a big Chuck Todd fan. I find the NBC chief White House correspondent to be extremely knowledgeable and generally insightful with his takes on politics. And I love his zest for the game.

But I have to disagree with him on this one.

Todd is upset that Jeb Bush's endorsement of Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney was overshadowed by a major gaffe by one of Romney's key aides.

Senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom started one of those flaps that political junkies, cable television and the blogosphere love when he was asked on CNN whether the long-running GOP primary was forcing Romney so far to the right that it might prove a problem in the general election.

Not at all, Fehrnstrom replied. "You hit a restart button for the fall campaign," he said. He added, "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start it all over again."

The import was clear: Positions are not actual beliefs but simply pragmatic tactics to be changed at will. The comment had immediate resonance, reinforcing the image of Romney as a flipper and a flopper who will shift his stance on pretty much anything if the political payoff is there.

And the timing couldn't have been worse, coming as Romney seemed ever closer to locking up the nomination after his convincing win Tuesday in Illinois. It was the perfect gift for struggling Romney foes Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and, ultimately, once Romney does at last bag the nomination, President Barack Obama.

Todd is upset that such contretemps often become the story of the moment, overshadowing more momentous news. "It is sort of striking how this cycle, more than any, is nothing but the gaffe police," he said on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown" Thursday morning.

The Associated Press' Liz Sidoti agreed. "It's all about tidbit journalism, right? It's all about the little bits that make their way onto YouTube or handhelds." She added, "I think it really actually is detrimental to political journalism in the long run."

There's no doubt that Todd and Sidoti have a point. Too often campaigns and campaign coverage are caught up in meaningless fringe issues or kerfuffles. But I think they used the wrong case to go after a deserving target.

Fehrnstrom's comment was significant. It was a rare example of on-the-record candor. It captured perfectly the sheer cynicism of so much of today's politics. And what made it so riveting is that it was made by someone in the camp of a politician whose career has been characterized so profoundly by extreme position shifts in the service of expediency.

That's newsworthy, and perhaps more important than an endorsement that is part of the expected coming together of the Republican establishment now that Romney's "inevitable" triumph seems closer at hand and his foes seem played out.

I know that Michael Kinsley's wonderful line―"a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth" — is quoted too often.

But rarely has it seemed more appropriate.