Does the Etch a Sketch gaffe matter?
Joe Klein thinks Mitt Romney aide Erik Fehrnstrom’s Etch a Sketch gaffe “may go well beyond a momentary embarrassment and become a campaign-defining disaster, much as John Kerry’s ‘I voted for it before I voted against it’ gaffe.”
Here’s my question: Do these “campaign-defining” moments actually matter? That is to say, do they change the way the public understands a campaign? Or are they “defining” because they pithily reflect how the public already understands a campaign, and would understand it even in their absence?
Take Rick Perry’s unbearable moment of debate-induced amnesia. Insofar as it mattered, it mattered because the former Texas governor had been a consistently horrible, embarrassing debater during his run in the GOP primary campaign. If it had been Romney who had been unable to remember the third item on a list, no one would have cared. But Perry’s campaign was tanking and had been for some time. Conversely, if Perry had drawled out his third agency, his reputation for being a terrible debater would still have been there, and his campaign would still have been headed for disaster. There was nothing about that gaffe that materially changed Perry’s fortunes. What changed Perry’s fortunes were the same things that made that gaffe matter.
Similarly, Fehrnstrom’s Etch a Sketch comment allows reporters, pundits and Romney’s opponents to further make fun of Romney’s long history of flip-flopping on issues and telling some audiences he’s a moderate who hates labels and others that he’s “severely conservative.”
But that history is very well known, and Romney’s opponents already have a long library of damaging clips and statements to include in ads. If Fehrnstrom had called in sick Wednesday, the public would still have been presented with evidence that Romney is not a sincere man. Will it really make a difference that the ads presenting that evidence now include an Etch a Sketch border?
I’m skeptical. My hunch is that these moments only become “campaign defining” if the campaign was already defined that way in the first place, and in that case, they don’t have much of an impact. If that’s right, the election won’t be any different at all because of the Etch a Sketch comment. Which isn’t to say that it won’t be defined by it.