“What you need to do as soon as you can is to move as far to the right as you can in good conscience.”
A very liberal and savvy North Carolina political advisor gave that advice to the winner of a Democratic primary in a conservative congressional district almost 30 years ago.
Why would a liberal want his candidate to move from liberal positions towards a more conservative line?
Simple. He wanted his candidate to win. Some liberal positions that helped win Democratic voters in a primary would scare off moderates and moderate conservatives. Unless his candidate adjusted enough to get some of those voters, the liberal political advisor knew his candidate would lose.
I remembered that long-ago moment last week as I followed the news coverage of the “Etch A Sketch” story that caught Mitt Romney’s political advisor in an embarrassing gaffe.
Eric Fehrnstrom was explaining how Romney, after taking far-right positions in primary contests, could appeal to the moderate voters he needs to win in November. “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 restart all over again.”
Romney’s competitors in the Republican presidential primaries and Democratic supporters of Barack Obama raced to see who could pounce on Romney first.
Rick Santorum held up an Etch A Sketch toy. It lets you draw a picture, erase it with a shake of the hand, and then draw an entirely new picture. Santorum compared Romney and his changing positions to the toy.
Newt Gingrich set up a special website (SketchyRomney.com) with a “shake” button that changes the description of Romney from “progressive” to “moderate” to “severely conservative.”
Ron Paul used the moment to attack all three of the other Republican candidates. He wrote to his supporters, “You just can’t make that kind of stuff up. But I think comparing this race to an Etch A Sketch is appropriate. After all, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have just been toying around with the voters for the past several months.”
Democratic commentator Donna Brazile said, “As Michael Kinsley famously said, a gaffe is when someone inadvertently tells the truth. Mitt Romney is an Etch A Sketch – no one knows who he will be, where he will stand, or what he will say next week.”
Lost in all the political posturing, is recognition that Eric Fehrnstrom, like the liberal advisor of 30 years ago, is absolutely right. Once the campaign for the party nomination is over, a whole new campaign begins. It will have an entirely new target audience. The message for the new audience has to be tailored differently, a brand-new design, shaken up like an Etch A Sketch, and reconfigured.
The new campaign design and emphasis do not mean that the Republican nominee, Romney or someone else, must change his core beliefs or principles. He will, however, have to explain them differently. He must emphasize those ideas that have broader appeal to moderates. He should deemphasize some issues that were important to Republican primary voters, but are not so popular with the American general public.
Romney’s challenge is not a problem with the Etch A Sketch campaign changes that will take place once the nominating process is over. That change has to happen if he is to be competitive this fall.
His great challenge is different. It is to show that he is not an Etch A Sketch person. He must convince the American public that the campaign changes are, in the words of that liberal advisor 30 years ago, “made in good conscience” and that whatever changes in political positions Romney may make, he has core values and beliefs and a vision that is shaped by what he truly believes is best for his country.