All along, the question about Mitt Romney has not been whether he can win the presidency—he has a better chance than any other Republican contender, no ifs, ands or buts—but whether his own party will let him. Illinois seemed to suggest that it would. It was a resounding victory. But then came Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom's appearance on CNN where he was asked about Romney's move to the Right.
Fehrnstrom proceeded to make a big mistake: he told the truth. Romney's shift was purely tactical, he indicated. A sop to the party base. Soon enough, Romney will abandon the flapdoodle he has been touting and appeal to independent voters. The old Romney will replace the new one who replaced the older one. Fehrnstrom likened Romney to an Etch A Sketch, a fun childhood toy that allows you to erase drawings: "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," he stated. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank concluded that "it appeared more like Romney was playing Chutes and Ladders: He just landed on Space 87 and slid all the way back to 24."
It is that bad? Hardly. The flap will further jangle nerves in the GOP but disappear in a day. Fehrnstrom's error was to acknowledge the obvious, which is that any campaign remakes its candidate. The public projects its wishes onto the candidate. Romney does have to retool. What he has signaled during the primary season is that he is malleable enough to truckle to the Far Right, which is probably enough to appease it. As president, he wouldn't blithely ignore it. Nor could he afford to. But it probably would not dictate his actions. Romney's overwhelming desire has been to please whatever audience he is before. His only sincere belief appears to be in his own personal advancement, which makes him a representative figure for most politicians. Just look at the way Orrin Hatch and other Senators have suddenly discovered their fervent devotion to conservatism in the wake of the rise of the Tea Party.
Indeed, if Romney were to become president, he might try to triangulate between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. The House Republicans could prove the biggest thorn in his side. This week, the House scuttled a vote on a Senate-backed $109 billion transportation bill. Instead, it wants to fund transporation for another ninety days—a foolish and counterproductive way to fund what should be a far-sighted transportation policy.
Romney might end up feeling besieged in the Oval Office, not the first president to wonder why he wanted the job in the first place. But for now, he is garnering the enthusiasm and backing of what's left of the GOP establishment. Florida governor Jeb Bush's endorsement should provide a boost to his campaign. But if Romney wants to win the presidency, he is going to have to avoid further gaffes from him or his aides. At some point, the self-inflicted wounds will go from mere flesh injuries to more serious ones. Romney, in other words, needs to define himself. It's time not to talk about the Etch A Sketch but to use one.