Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

You may recall a memorable moment in the Romney campaign back in March, when senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom described the transition from the primaries to the general election as an opportunity for his candidate to reinvent himself:

 Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.

Admitting to this plan was roundly criticized as folly, but candidates traditionally must fine-tune (or even significantly overhaul) their messages as they transition from the primary race to the general election. The conventions offer a candidate the opportunity to introduce himself to voters who do not yet know him, and focus attention on his central themes.

But rhetoric can take you only so far. It lets you tinker with the edges of your persona, but you will still be defined in some measure by your past actions and statements. That’s how your ethos, or credibility, is established. If your new persona and your past actions are out of synch, listeners are likely to believe what your history tells them rather than what you are saying now, and you leave yourself vulnerable to criticism from opponents.

To appeal to undecided voters, who are likely to lean toward the middle, Romney must bridge the gap between Governor Romney (reasonably moderate and pragmatic) and the “severely conservative” (his words) candidate from the primaries. To get there, Romney needed to settle upon more moderate positions and present them convincingly during the convention—a task he was not able to accomplish.

Ferhnstrom’s memorable quote made Romney’s rhetorical challenge at the convention even more difficult—changing courses too dramatically would offer his opponents the perfect opportunity to revive the “Etch A Sketch” refrain. But there are other reasons Romney’s reformation has failed to gain purchase, and that show how verbal persuasion in the political arena may be the most challenging kind:

1. The Rainbow Record. Romney has been in politics for a long time and has taken a host of “firm” positions that collide with one another. He has been, at various times, pro- and anti-choice in the matter of abortion. He has been both pro- and anti-gun control; pro- and against education spending and reforms; creator and bitter foe of a health insurance mandate; a Senate candidate who would “be better than Ted [Kennedy] for gay rights,” to an opponent of gay marriage; someone willing to raise taxes, to a candidate opposed to any tax increases, ever. It is difficult for Romney to make this record consistent and coherent, which was a challenge underlying the convention and is likely to plague him in the debates.

2. The Long, Toxic Primaries. During the Republican primaries, Romney made hundreds of speeches, gave countless interviews, and participated in numerous, pressure-filled debates. This offers multiple opportunities for any candidate to misspeak, quip badly or downright fumble. These events also pressured Romney to skew his answers to the right in order to court extreme factions of the party, tugging him away from the more electable middle positions. It will be difficult for him to appeal to certain voters with anti-tax, anti-immigrant, anti-environmental, and anti-gay rights positions, and it will be impossible for him to change those positions convincingly without raising that Etch A Sketch refrain.

3.  The Information Age. There once was a time when candidates could sweep aside misstatements or even questionable positions that they want to change. In the world of 24/7 news, bloggers, fired-up television and radio news commenters, and the Internet (where embarrassing videos live forever), it just isn’t possible anymore.

4. The Intractable Base. The base of the right is at once deeply splintered and stubbornly entrenched: the tea party, neocons, evangelical religious groups, social and economic conservatives. Many of these factions will tolerate no compromise on the issues most important to them. Therein lies a conundrum: Romney needs that base. But he needs some more moderate voters as well. Even the most skilled rhetorician would be at a loss to find arguments that can satisfy both.

5. The Lunacy Platform.  In the information age, lunacy gets attention.  Anyone can make a claim on the internet, without substance to back it, and if it is repeated, it takes on a reality of its own.  If supporters believe lies, and if lies convince them to vote for you, then it can be too tempting to play fast and loose with the facts.  Romney’s base includes people who have made preposterous claims, some of which you can see reflected in the Republican platform (e.g. the right to defend your home should include the right to do so with unregistered weapons of unlimited size).  Scholars of rhetoric will tell you that logic, or logos, requires that you have facts to back up your claims.  Scholars of elections will tell you that, sometimes, playing to the lowest common denominator can win.

When you listen to an advocate, you judge that advocate based not just on what he says, but on everything that you know about him. Most audiences know nothing more about a speaker than what he himself reveals during the course of his talk. Politicians have a more difficult challenge on their hands—advocating a position with political experts, Internet bloggers, and their own track records dogging them. The best course of action for someone seeking to be our president would be to stick to his positions, tell the truth, and have the courage of his convictions. This would make you the better rhetorician and the better advocate. It makes you more credible in the long run. And if you don’t, you have handed your opponent an easy way to attack you, which may have some effect on that important, small block of undecided voters.

If Romney decides to adopt more moderate positions in the future, he must explain that his changing positions reflect that an effective leader is willing to reconsider a decision or position based on new and better information. While it is important to have foundational values, he might point out, no one should be an ideologue set in stone. The trick after that would be to sell that idea to the base that nominated him.

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