Friday, March 23, 2012

Erasing the context of Fehrnstrom's gaffe

Blogging political scientists are useful killjoys, constantly reminding us that the things that feel like they matter most in daily political warfare usually matter not at all, or very little. Reagan's ability to sway public opinion from the bully pulpit? A mirage.  The 'driver's license' debate debacle that killed Hilliary's momentum? It didn't. The Etch-A-Sketch candidate, etched in stone? It'll shake clean by fall.

But this time I don't buy it. That is, I don't buy Brendan Nyhan's debunk in Columbia Journalism Review. Nyhan has two beefs about the coverage of Eric Fehrnstrom's Etch-A-Sketch gaffe: an ethical complaint about the way Fehrnstrom's remark has been interpreted, and a debunking of the widely forecast likely dramatic effects. On the latter front, I suspect he may be partly wrong. On the charge of unfairness to Fehrnstrom and Romney, I think he's almost completely off base.

Here is the quote Fehrnstrom quote segment that Nyhan puts up:
FUGELSANG: Good morning, sir. It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?
FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think 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 we start all over again.
Nyhan approvingly cites several reporters who pointed to potential ambiguity in the focus of "reset" and "shake it up" -- e.g., Felicia Somnez noting that is was unclear “whether he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign or rather to Romney’s positions on the issues.”  Then he slams those who got a bit too plastic:
To erase this ambiguity, though, other reporters and pundits constructed paraphrases of Fehrnstrom that directly echoed the dominant narrative about Romney....TPM’s Josh Marshall claimed that Romney’s “top aide said voters’ minds were like an Etch-a-Sketch: Mitt could reposition back to the center in time for the general election with little damage from the primaries. In other words, you just repaint the picture. No one remembers.” The process by which the Fehrnstrom clip was quickly massaged into a more damaging paraphrase echoes the similar process that took place with Romney’s quote “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” as well as previous statements by Al Gore about his role in supporting the development of the Internet and John Kerry’s positions on a bill appropriating funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 And why all the fun? Economic motives, primarily:
While the Etch-a-Sketch line might have attracted some attention in any context, it is likely that the media is especially receptive to potentially damaging anecdotes about Romney after wins because he is very likely to win the nomination. The hype around these gaffes helps to meet the professional and economic incentives to maintain viewer and reader interest in the race despite the overwhelming odds faced by Romney’s rivals.
I am not denying that reporters should not add their own embellishments-via-paraphrase to the words of those whom they quote, nor that there's some ambiguity in Fehrnstrom's words.  We can never reach his "actual" meaning, which probably was not particularly clear in his own mind -- how many of us would completely isolate in thought resetting the emphases or processes of the campaign from resetting policy positions?   Nonetheless, it is perfectly natural -- and fair -- to read the remark as a confession that Romney is peculiarly prone to reset his policy positions and value statements for political gain and that his campaign considers that kind of reset par for the course.

Nyhan ignores the context of the remark -- that is, the question to which Fehrnstrom was responding directly: Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?. How do you reset a tack to the right?  You alter or "erase" far-right policy positions. That's how most listeners would interpret the response -- particularly when it's in reference to a candidate who has relentlessly reset almost every position he's ever held. The debates have been one extended spectacle of Romney 'shaking up' past positions -- support for the individual mandate, for a woman's right to choose, for a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, for stimulus, for managed bankruptcy for the auto giants-- en route to erasing them before our eyes.

This gaffe is qualitatively different from Romney's "I like to fire people" remark. There, however unfortunate and perhaps unconsciously expressive the wording, the full context makes it clear that Romney was referring to "firing" insurance companies (though his repeated equation of companies with people is interesting too, and his alleged plans to give individuals choice among insurers are nonsense)).  In this case, notwithstanding a measure of ambiguity, there is no manifest meaning in Fehrnstrom's words to set against the dominant interpretation. Nyhan, in a Twitter exchange with me, asserted, "EF said the campaign changes in general, used E-a-S metaphor for that change."  But that interpretation requires more creativity than the dominant one.  There is no reason for Romney's rivals to give him the benefit of the doubt, or for those disgusted by his policy reversals and relentless lying to abjure the extraordinarily apt metaphor.

It was unethical for Jon Huntsman to trumpet that Romney said he likes to fire people without reference to context.  No one, however, should have any inhibitions about references to Romney "resetting" his positions or "wiping the slate clean" of past positions.  Indeed, because it's metaphor, "Etch-A-Sketch" now belongs to everyone. There's no need to reference what Fehrnstrom said or meant.  It's fair game to wave Etch-A-Sketches at Romney wherever he goes. As for journalists, yes, they should report the remarks without embellishing them.  But it seems to me appropriate to set the remarks in the context of Romney's past flip-flops, his post-truth campaign, and his and his surrogates' prior embraces of manipulation and facade.  This remark was not trivia. It was the Romney ethos, bared.

That brings me to a second point of at least partial disagreement.  Nyhan cites various studies to demonstrate that famous gaffes embedded in our campaign lore (Kerry's Swiss cheese on a cheese steak, McCain's not knowing how many houses he owned, Hillary's fumble over driver's licenses for undocumented aliens) have "little electoral significance." 

There are gaffes and gaffes, however.  The evidence that they don't matter is often gathered from polls taken shortly before and after the incident in question, showing little difference -- e.g., in this John Sides post cited by Nyhan.  Some campaign blowups sink deep, however, and some are gifts that keep giving for the opposition.  When making phone calls for Obama in the fall campaign in '08, I spoke to several people whose opinion of Obama had seemingly been shaped by the Jeremiah Wright affair or by his "cling to guns and religion" riff.  Perhaps their fears about him -- in some cases racist ones - -simply seized on those handy objects. But who's to say whether some such explosive objects-to-hand may not pack more charge than others? That anxieties about Obama's "black agenda," as one person characterized it to me, would not have been less intense if that particular fodder had not been furnished?  And when a potent negative perception works its way over time into people's overall perception of the candidate, is it detectable in polling?

It seems to me that Ferhnstrom has put a weapon with staying power in the hands of Romney's opponents, chiefly Obama.  Any time an antagonist wants to call attention either to a new tack-to-the-center policy shift or an old one, he or she can figuratively shake an Etch-A-Sketch. John Sides cites current polling to support the thesis that images of Romney as an out-of-touch richie resonate more with swing voters than images of him as a flip-flopper.  Maybe. But independents also allegedly are not paying much attention yet. Romney's flip-flops are blindingly easy to illustrate -- and he has flopped toward positions that favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class. So the two attack lines may coalesce. And this one may hurt.

Afterthought, 3/24: In defense of Ferhnstrom, many people have pointed out that all presidential campaigns have to tack back to the center once the primary contest is over. Well, of course. But still the metaphor, reaching back into childhood for a primal experience of erasure, is extraordinarily telling. If I were trying to describe how I'd recalibrate a campaign, I might revert to my daily experience of the word processing redline: a few words omitted here, a point elaborated there, the edits first highlighted and then "accepted" in a new clean draft -- improved, but substantially similar to the prior one. Not too many candidates or campaigns would see themselves wiping the slate clean.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent corrective.

    I think the Etch-a-Sketch framework can easily be enlarged to lay bare the ethos of the entire Republican party.
    It reveals their fundamental approach to governing, especially in the past three years. There is no "good faith." Nothing they say or do is real, solid, or honest.
    They can no longer be trusted to act in the interest of the public good.

    1. Reneging on the debt ceiling deal. Shake to erase.

    2. Individual mandate, born in the Heritage Foundation. Shake to erase.

    3. Position on payroll tax holiday. Shake to erase.

    4. Position on paying for tax cuts. Shake to erase.

    5. Position on cap and trade. Shake to erase.

    6. Position on campaign finance disclosure. Shake to erase.

    7. Attempt to block free trade deals. Shake to erase.

    8. Position on a National Infrastructure Bank. Shake to erase.

    9. Position on establishing Congressionally-approved deficit commission. Shake to erase.

    10. "Deficits don't matter." Shake to erase.

    And on and on.