The Romney campaign's sketchy election strategy
Much criticism has been heaped on a top campaign aide to Mitt Romney for saying that the campaign could "hit a reset button" for the general election, shaking up and restarting "like an Etch-A-Sketch." Eric Fehrnstrom's comments on CNN let rivals renew their accusations that Romney is pretending to be a conservative simply to win the GOP nomination, at which point he reverts to being a Massachusetts moderate.
What struck me about the comment was how Fehrnstrom seems to be living in an alternate universe, one without cable news channels and the Internet. There may be a reset button in that environment, but there sure isn't one in this world.
Romney tried to put a wildly different spin on Fehrnstrom's remarks Wednesday afternoon, saying his aide was simply talking about organizational matters. The "policies and positions" of the campaign won't change, Romney said, but "the nature of the campaign itself, in terms of staff, funding, the states we would go to, will be different than today.”
The real meaning of Fehrnstrom's comments seems to lie somewhere in between. Fehrnstrom was responding to a question on whether Romney had moved too far to the right in the primary to win in the general election. His answer clearly addresses more than just where Romney would stump for votes as the nominee; it advances the view that the general-election campaign starts from scratch.
That's just not possible. Romney, like all of his opponents in the race, will never be a blank slate again. All of their public utterances on the campaign trail have been preserved somewhere on tape or online. Much of President Obama's campaign in the fall will be reminding voters of the things that his opponent, whether it be Romney or someone else, has said in his efforts to win over GOP members who have the least in common with the voters who can tip the election -- independents, centrists and the growing population of Latino Americans.
Not that the president's campaign will confine its search to things his Republican opponent said in the current primaries. If Romney is the nominee, we can expect an extended tour through his years at Bain Capital, as well as revisiting the (ahem) dissonance between positions Romney took as Massachusetts governor and the ones he's espousing today.
Obama has the distinct advantage of not having to fend off rivals on his left to win the Democratic nomination. Like the eventual Republican nominee, his campaign in the fall will have to balance the need to play to his base -- that is, to motivate members of his own party -- with the imperative to attract swing voters. But that's an especially tricky task for Romney, given how unenthusiastic GOP conservatives have been about his candidacy. For them, any move Romney makes to the middle may be seen less as electoral pragmatism and more as a show of true colors.
What Fehrnstrom should have said to CNN was that Romney hasn't moved too far to the right; he's had to focus too much on himself and his rivals and not enough on Obama. His campaign has tried repeatedly to shift into general-election mode, with Romney ignoring his GOP opponents and confining his remarks to the incumbent's record.
If Romney can keep voters focused on Obama and the country's struggles over the last few years, he won't have to try to sell independents on the positions he's taken over the past few months. That's a big "if," and it depends to a large extent on the economy losing steam. But then, with a European financial meltdown still a possibility, along with $5-a-gallon gasoline, the recovery could sputter again, just as it did last spring after an earthquake and tsunami crippled Japan. Maybe that's the reset button Fehrnstrom had in mind.
Credit: Associated Press / The Ohio Art Co./Ellen Dallager