Wednesday morning, a man working for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign described the transition from the primaries to the general election as "a reset button. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch."
The man who said that was Eric Fehrnstrom, which would be fine if he were Professor Farnsworth's nemesis on Futurama or President of the Association of People Who Share the Same Name as Charlatans Groucho Marx Played. Unfortunately, he's Mitt's charlatan: Fehrnstrom is his Communications Director.
Fehrnstrom's further comment, that you "kind of shake it up just restart all over again" only made things worse. Even out of context, it's an instantly recognizable jerkoff comment, in a country where most people under 40 grew up with video games and know that the most intolerable asshole in the world is the guy who doesn't like how the game's going and hits RESET. It's even worse in the context of Mitt Romney, whose campaign conduct alone inspires "reboot" lines even before his robotic demeanor practically screams for them.
All of this is funny. You're already launching something comically special when a guy whose only job is "messaging" and "using words" manages to use all of the bad ones, badly. But Fehrnstrom breakfasted on his feet, on CNN, a little after 5:00 a.m., and by midday Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich had already been photographed with Etch A Sketches. Both men are quicker and more natural than Romney, and they made the unintended joke funnier. Newt had his trademark fat smirk of cherubic naughtiness while talking about Romney and ended by handing a little girl the Etch A Sketch and saying, "She could now be a presidential candidate." To bring this back to video games, "HE'S ON FIRE!"
Even the Etch A Sketch itself was sublimely absurd. This was the big "impact" talking point of the day, and it involved former speaker Hugo Drax (R-Moon) and former senator Gregory Seven (R-Dictatus Papae) holding children's toys-deriving significant, bolstering meaning from children's toys. It never would have occurred to them that an antiquated, rigid device whose only positive output is two-dimensional and easily destroyed might as well speak to the precarious, Manichaean economics they all share. It also probably didn't occur to them that anybody not already deeply invested in this tedious slapfight would instantly start thinking of other Republican family games and toys:
- Operation. The patient's nose lights up red and his body begins buzzing no matter where you touch him, because he doesn't have insurance. He dies.
- Outburst. Something you have when a black man is addressing a joint session of Congress.
- Monopoly. The game is played with 99 other people. One of them is the bank. He lends money to himself. The other 98 players mill around, forlornly making duckface and lamenting that "the boardwalk is fucking gay now." While you were playing, your mother was run over by a pewter car. Also, you were put in jail for illegal gambling when you touched the dice, because you are black.
- Trivial Pursuit: The answer to every question is "Reagan."
- Simon. A button lights up every time Ronald Reagan speaks. Press this button in sequence after every Reagan quote. There is only one button, and it is large and red. The toy device itself is the size of an end table, because it is filled with cookies that are dispensed to you when you correctly push the red button. You quickly swell to Hastertian proportions, get diabetes and die. (See "Operation.")
- Dominoes. Line them up, upright, then push them over. Now you know why we have to bomb Iran.
That said, this latest Romney-related gaffe probably won't arrest his Tampa-bound slog, even though everyone knows he's a horrible fraud. Aside from the unintentional comedy, all Santorum and Gingrich did was tell an oft-told story with a new prop. Mitt Romney's ship of state steers whichever way the wind blows. In 2002, in liberal Massachusetts, Romney vowed to "preserve and protect a woman's right to choose"; now he's anti-abortion. Even as late as 2008, he said "I like [insurance] mandates" when they were a Heritage Foundation scheme to co-opt Democrats' dominance on the health care issue. Once Obama established them on the national level, Romney steered right, abjuring one of his decent accomplishments and heading straight toward electability.
And while, yes, presidents tend to move toward the middle once elected (every Obama supporter currently enjoying a public-option health plan can testify to this), Romney likely cannot move very far in that direction. The GOP's tests of ideological purity have grown so stringently Stalinist that each election cycle sees someone's pictures cut out of the group photos and disappeared. Christine "Not a Witch" O'Donnell thumped Mike Castle, who died via the Tea Party ordeal by water. John "Ernie" Boehner is our first Muppet Speaker of the House, occasionally weeping with discomfort from Eric Cantor's arm manipulating his orange ass and shoving him rightward. They even went after notorious prig Orrin Hatch and might have won if they'd kept themselves from astroturfing so hard. In this climate, the idea that Romney could move fully to the center is silly-especially if he wants funding out of the House.
No, what makes this a big deal is that Mitt's Communications Director gave away the ending. Everyone—especially Democrats, who watched Obama go from lightweight FDR on the stump to Clinton 2.0 in the White House—knows that their chosen presidential savior will tack away from them as soon as he palm-slaps the Bible and starts swearing oaths. Fehrnstrom's obnoxious truth-belch was like owning a special screener copy of Back to the Future. You watch it once; it's normal. The second time, though, with just 10 minutes to spare—as Marty's desperate to get the DeLorean down Hill Valley's main drag, to the clock tower, and Doc struggles to reconnect the wires—the whole thing pauses, and Bob Zemeckis says, "Why are you tense? Why are you holding onto the arm of your couch? You know Marty gets back to 1985."
Some people are bound to be annoyed at spoiling a 27-year-old movie. But this political tale—of pandering toward the wings in the primary and slouching to the middle once in power—has been a certainty at least since 1969. Still, it excites and terrifies us to think that this time it could be different: Marty doesn't go home; the Democrat doesn't turn into a craven sellout; the Republican reaches across the aisle and starts making out with Harry Reid, their flesh melting together. We need these polite fictions, either because we contribute to erotic fan message boards or, more likely, because they ward off despair. They're another unreal buffer between the sentimental ghosts of those political truths we dreamt about in civics class and the vengeful, capricious specters that haunt us between inauguration days.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.