In an appearance on CNN in March, Mitt Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom was asked whether the far-right positions Romney took during the primaries would hurt his chances in the general election. Fehrnstrom was not concerned. “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,” he said.
At the time, some observers thought Fehrnstrom was deluding himself. UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich wrote, “Try as he might, Romney won’t be able to twist the knobs and create a brand new picture. There will be too many videos of him during the primary saying things that were designed to appeal to increasingly far-right, far-out GOP primary voters — but will strike most Americans as bizarre if not despicable.”
But since his first debate against Barack Obama, Romney has been shaking the Etch-A-Sketch vigorously — and it’s working. He has started claiming that his health care plan covers people with pre-existing conditions when it does no such thing. He renounced his statement describing 47 percent of Americans as parasitic moochers. During the primary campaign, he said “we’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent,” but now he promises not to cut taxes for high-income Americans. And we can expect to see Romney pivot to the center even further in tomorrow night’s debate.
What is striking about this development is not only the volume of reversals Romney has performed or the brazenness of his contortions but the fact that he has successfully pulled it off in the age of YouTube. Any curious voter could go to a computer and find videos of Romney endorsing the positions that he is now vigorously renouncing. Nonetheless, his poll numbers have surged since he took a more moderate tone. The race, which Obama was heavily favored to win before the first debate, is now neck and neck.
All of this suggests that the Internet doesn’t increase the political penalty for flip-flopping. Past statements and positions, even if they are immortalized on the Web, do very little to prevent candidates from reinventing themselves during campaigns. Reich was wrong: We still live in an Etch-A-Sketch political world.
However, when Romney decides to reinvent his political persona, as he does every so often, he just has a few YouTube videos to distance himself from and a handful of positions to renounce. Will candidates from my generation — who have had so much of their lives, viewpoints and affiliations plastered on Facebook, Twitter, online forums and other social media — be able to escape their pasts and remake themselves so they can win elections as easily as Romney has? Will we inherit Etch-A-Sketch politics?
The intuitive answer is no — most of us assume that the Internet will impose a measure of ideological consistency on the next generation of political leaders. Maybe that’s why Obama once told a group of ninth-graders that, if they want to be president, they should be careful what they post on Facebook.
But I think we tend to overestimate the degree to which viewpoints conveyed online will bind future politicians. The first member of our generation to run for president will have decades’ worth of social media activity available for the press and political opponents to scrutinize — tweets, Facebook “likes,” comments, photos, videos, LinkedIn pages, online group memberships and more. Any future candidate will simply have to disavow some positions and statements he or she expressed online; it will not be impossible for voters to expect as much consistency from candidates as they do now (though that isn’t saying much). Charges of flip-flopping are likely to lose their teeth.
There will be a dizzying quantity of information available about all the positions ever held by political candidates who grew up in the age of the Internet, but voters won’t have any more time to pay attention to politics. They are likely to cope with this tsunami of information by simply tuning it out and focusing on what seems most immediately relevant: candidates’ latest positions.
In other words, don’t expect the Internet to force future candidates to be consistent — it might even have the opposite effect by desensitizing voters to charges of inconsistency. Our generation is likely to inherit a political world where the Etch-A-Sketch works as well as ever.
But don’t worry: I would be surprised if any future flip-floppers are quite as shameless as Mitt Romney.
Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.
Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regard to the readers, writers and contributors of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Click here to read the full comment policy.