Mitt Romney Has Indeed Become The Etch-A-Sketch Candidate

If only team Obama had a powerful metaphor to undercut Romney’s effort to Etch-A-Sketch himself into a middle-class-loving moderate.

Oh wait, they do. But even though the Romney campaign has apparently changed its losing strategy of being an “extreme conservative,” team Obama has so far failed to respond with the obvious, winning strategy — labeling Romney the Etch-A-Sketch candidate for attempting to erase his numerous unpopular policy positions and redraw himself as a centrist.

Back in March, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom made what was, until the “47%” video, the political gaffe of the year. He was asked about how his boss’s politics might change after he gets the nomination. “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said, “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

Romney’s effort to recast himself with myriad untruths in the first presidential debate revealed that indeed Fehrnstrom was telling the truth.

I’ve been interested in this gaffe for two reasons. First, climate and energy are two of the major areas where Romney has shaken his position and started again — see, for instance, “Another Etch A Sketch Moment: In 2006, Romney Supported High Gasoline Prices To Discourage Consumption.”

In June, the NY Times had a scathing editorial, “Energy Etch A Sketch.” They point out that after Romney erased all the sensible energy and climate policies he had as governor, today “the policies he espouses would be devastating for the country and the planet.”

In last week’s debate, Romney said, “I love coal.” I guess it’s like one of those TV sitcom or movie romcom love affairs that began with really intense dislike, since back in 2003, then Governor Romney attacked coal jobs that “kill people.”

Second, my new book on persuasive communications — Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gagaexamines effective messaging, political gaffes, and the role of the figures of speech.

Back in March, I wrote on HuffPost, “Eight Reasons the Etch-A-Sketch Gaffe Will Endure.” In the book I discuss why it is a particularly powerful weapon:

Another reason this is likely to endure is that it is a visual metaphor that everyone knows from childhood. Like all vivid metaphors, it connects something we understand and can describe easily (how an Etch-A-Sketch works) with something we can’t (how Romney works). If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good metaphor is worth two thousand.

Metaphors are especially memorable because “Studies reveal that virtually all of our abstract conceptualization and reasoning is structured by metaphor.” Churchill called metaphors “among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician.”

Etch a Sketch is itself a figure of speech — a rhyme — which makes it an even more memorable phrase.

Rhymes, like the best figures, work because they aid memory. Indeed, the figures of speech were developed by the great bards like Homer precisely because they made it easier for them to remember epic poems and because they stuck in the listener’s ears.

This metaphor erased all the previous metaphors used for Romney’s tendency to be on all sides of an issue—like flip-flopper—and drew a simple, compelling visual image that still shadows Romney months later. Why? Washington Post Columnist Chris Cillizza explained, “Gaffes that matter are those that speak to a larger narrative about a candidate or a doubt/worry that voters already have about that particular candidate.” The Etch-a-Sketch gaffe “is likely to linger in the electorate it speaks to a broader storyline already bouncing around the political world: That Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win.”

And yet while pundits like Chris Matthews still use the metaphor, team Obama doesn’t. Why?

Ryan Lizza gave the answer last month in The New Yorker. In November 2011, key members of Obama’s campaign briefed Clinton on their planned strategy:

At the time, the Obama team was alternating between two arguments about Romney. One presented him as an inveterate flip-flopper, the other as a right-wing ideologue who would return the country to a pre-New Deal dystopia. Clinton advised them to stick with the second argument. It would help with fund-raising, he said; liberal donors would be more motivated to fight a fierce conservative.

If they defined Romney as a flip-flopper, undecided voters might think that he could return to his moderate roots once he was in office. “They tried to do this to me, the flip-flopper thing,” Clinton said, according to someone in the room. “It just doesn’t work.” He told the Obama aides that voters never held the flip-flopper attacks against him because they felt that he would simply do what was right.

Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s advice turned out to be very good — given team Romney’s strategy at the time. It led to Obama winning June, July, August, and, amazingly, even September. Unexpectedly, Romney didn’t “hit a reset button for the fall campaign” at the Republican convention.

No, Romney waited until it was obvious he was starting to lose badly, especially in swing states like Ohio, before, “like an Etch A Sketch” he decided to “shake it up and we start all over again.”

As Tom Friedman explained in a Sunday column, in the debate, Romney decided to “start aggressively playing to win”:

He did so by repositioning himself as a center-right Republican moderate. Yes, this required him to mischaracterize and disguise key aspects of his platform on taxes and health care.

Once Romney switched strategy — once he returned to his moderate roots — team Obama had to switch strategy, too. If Romney was going to tell “27 Myths In 38 Minutes,” as Think Progress put it, Obama couldn’t possibly refute them all.

Simply saying your opponent is lying over and over again is not a winning strategy — how can some undecided or independent voter decide who is telling the truth, especially if the moderator isn’t acting as an umpire? Moreover, most voters, certainly most undecideds/independents think all politicians lie — if they didn’t they’d have picked a side already.

No, the only viable response to Romney’s Gish Gallup is to use some powerful metaphor that everyone will understand, a metaphor that matches what people already think about Romney, in this case a metaphor the Romney campaign itself created to describe precisely the strategy Romney has adopted!

This isn’t about calling Romney a flip-flopper. It’s about using a key metaphor to draw a powerful picture that “Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win.”

As I wrote in my book, “If team Obama has language intelligence, we’ll see and hear a lot about Etch-A-Sketches.”

You can buy the Kindle version of the book here and the paperback here.

16 Responses to Mitt Romney Has Indeed Become The Etch-A-Sketch Candidate

  1. fj says:

    On Mitt Romney’s “theatrical performance” as Elmer Gantry and Monty Hall


  2. Mike Roddy says:

    I hope Obama listens to you. Romney has now erased the president’s leads in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia, and national polls show Obama’s overall lead at only 1.1%:

  3. Joe Romm says:

    Still 3 at

  4. Chris Winter says:

    Albert Hunt of Bloomberg News posted a cogent analysis of the campaign yesterday:

    Romney’s Debate Win Doesn’t Make It 1980 Again

  5. AlanInAZ says:

    The new Pew poll shows Romney up by 4%. I find it interesting that the poll respondents recognize Romney’s inconsistency but don’t really care. They feel that he has a program for jobs and Obama does not. After watching the debate I am hard pressed to say what Obama wants to do in the next four years. Romney was very good at faking a program. I think this is the big problem facing Obama.

  6. BobbyL says:

    Romney is a slick opportunist. But Obama can’t counter the Etch-A-Sketch image because he himself sold us a bill of goods in 2008 leading us to believe great change was ahead and he turned out to be just another politician close to Wall Street. Justice Party candidate former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson (once called America’s greenest mayor) is the opposite of an Etch-A-Sketch candidate. You know where he stands. He was the only mayor of a large city to call for the impeachment of George W. Bush because of the Iraq War. You can watch Anderson debate Green Party candidate Jill Stein as they answer the same questions given to Obama and Romney. This debate between third party candidates was held at a location near Denver University on the same evening as the first presidential debate. Highlights of the debate are available at

  7. Omega Centauri says:

    Well Joe, I’d like to know a useable rhetorical strategy against this sort of campaign. You know where the opponent repeats lies and refuted talking points over and over at you. And the fact checkers desire to seem balanced lead them to simply say both sides do it. And the public doesn’t seem to care about truth, versus truthy talking points. Sure I think he should have borrowed Reagan’s, “there you go again”, but could he have pulled it off. Yelling “liar, liar pants on fire seems -in the current environment to risk getting labeled as unsporting or elitist. So can we come up with an effective rhetorical (or otherwise) strategy for beating off a blizzard of lies campaign?

  8. Olong_Johnson says:

    Since Obama could not think about the “etch-a-sketch” metaphor while practically everybody else who has been following the presidential campaign could think about the “etch-a-sketch” metaphor does not speak well of the president. I suppose Obama isn’t prone to patronizing the electorate but considering there was W. Bush presidency and a VP candidate Palin , he may want to re-think his no patronizing strategy.

  9. Joe Romm says:

    Never seen one. Best would be a combination of humor and a sweeping metaphor.

  10. “What is it that ordinary citizens rather like about Mitt Romney’s face, the smiling face of capitalism? What is it that we do not like about his face, when it frowns, or the smile seems more unfriendly, or contrived?

    “The US brand of capitalism is particularly unique, the individual path to success extraordinarily difficult to navigate. … It is not enough merely to master a particular business niche or technological innovation. … More is required. One must adopt the changing form of a chameleon: “Who do you want me to be?”


  11. fj says:

    “Romney’s strategy of deception,” per NBC News may also be a very effective description.

  12. fj says:

    With Methods of Mass Deception being another.

  13. fj says:

    As a not-so-subtle reminder of the disasters of the prior Republican administration.

  14. fj says:

    “Here we go again with more methods mass deception that brought us to war, financial meltdown . . . and, “Browny, you’ve done one heck-uv-a job!”

  15. Sasparilla says:

    Well we have the rest of the month for the Obama campaign to get back ahead, hopefully Obama didn’t blow it for good with that first debate.

  16. tom farmer says:

    Constructively helpful suggestion as Joe hints.. the hit runner metaphor on yours truly right now. Enjoy