credit: The Dish/The Daily Beast

Last night Chris Matthews called the Etch-a-Sketch comment by Mitt Romney’s top aide one of the worst gaffes in political history, or something equally apocalyptic. Asked if Romney would be hurt in the general election by tacking so far right now, Eric Fehrnstrom said, “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.”

Matthews is often hyperbolic, but here I think he’s right: We finally have a powerful new metaphor for electoral pandering, one that perfectly defines Romney’s habit of repeatedly and mechanically saying whatever he needs to get across.

Flip-flop is exhausted, two-faced is even duller—but an Etch-a-Sketch is visual, it’s red, it’s a fun toy everyone knows, and you can hold it in your hands (it feels like a chunky prototype of the iPad). As many pundits have pointed out, these metaphors stick to Romney, as they don’t to Santorum or even Gingrich, because they’re true: his tailoring of policy to his electorate is rampant, almost compulsive. But Etch-a-Sketch bites more than flip-flop because the toy operates, as Mitt seems to, like an awkward machine that can’t draw a curved line.

An Etch-a-Sketch forces you to draw in straight lines, unless you’re patient enough to counter-intuitively twist both dials at once. It is drawing reduced to a mechanical process, but one that requires a kind of automatic dispensation for not getting the picture exactly right—like the image of Romney his campaign conjures, you have to use a little imagination to make the resemblance seem lifelike.

Naturally, Santorum and Gingrich started carrying around Etch-a-Sketches all day long as props. And within hours the Democrats had cranked out ads for the web. Here is the DNC’s, and here’s a far better spot, by American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive Super PAC from Media Matter’s David Brock:


This mock ad on YouTube, while too fuzzy and too long, captures the disconnected nostalgia of Romney’s campaign in general.

But of all the Romney Etch-a-Sketch mock-ups, so far only the image above, from Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, actually shows the awkward, squared-off letters made by a single continuous line that the little machine forces you to draw with. 

Another reason the Etch-a-Sketch remark—unlike “I like to fire people” or even the saga of Seamus the dog—may do real damage is that it is, as Tim Noah in The New Republic calls it, “America’s First Multiplatform Gaffe.”

Fehrnstrom’s Etch-A-Sketch crack will inspire parody images, Web widgets, and apps downloaded onto computer screens, tablet computers, iPhones, and of course Etch-A-Sketches. These images can effortlessly be e-mailed, Facebooked, and tweeted hither and yon. Competitive impulses will be stirred among rival campaigns, amateur and professional Web designers, and legions of wiseacres with too much time on their hands.

On the more positive side, one thing Fehrnstrom’s comment did for Romney was prove the vulture capitalist’s fine touch for American business. Late today, Ohio Art, the maker of Etch-a-Sketch, saw a 140 percent gain in stock price thanks to the slew of free advertising.