Perils of Debating ‘Etch A Sketch’ Romney

Was Barack Obama caught off guard at the first debate when his opponent made a shift toward the center?

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However, unlike the Republican he portrayed in the primaries, Romney swung uncharacteristically straight at Wall Street. “Regulation is essential,” he said in terms that might rattle his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (D-Wis.), and the Tea Party. “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulations.” 

This bait and switch performance was signaled in March by Romney’s key strategist Eric Fehrnstrom when CNN asked whether his candidate’s hard-core conservative positions taken during the primary would hurt him with moderates in the campaign against Obama.  

“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.” That shaking you heard from the University of Denver campus last night was the sound of the Romney Etch A Sketch.

This scheme had been the initial GOP plan of those who considered the moderate Romney to be the best matchup with Obama. Poleaxing Romney into submission during the primary, however, his GOP opponents virtually silenced him on his record as Massachusetts governor. And in a brilliant campaign of summer attack ads, Team Obama took away his “vulture” years at Bain Capital as a viable campaign issue.

Consequently, naked as a cock robin after winning the GOP nomination, Romney made the desperate Hail Mary move once considered unthinkable: he named tea-bagger Paul Ryan as his running mate. Such virtuosity comes naturally to a missionary like Romney, who spent all those years of field service grappling with recalcitrant, heathen opposition.

The big question before the first of three presidential debates last night was whether Romney would stick with the hard-right, Paul Ryan-conservative posture or reach for the Etch A Sketch. Seemingly caught off guard initially, President Obama recovered upon perceiving Romney moonwalking away from his previously vaunted plan for the rich: “I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut,” Romney said last night.

“Now,” a frustrated Obama uttered, “he is saying that his big, bold idea is ‘never mind.’ “

This zinger came during a sluggish, though substantive, night for the president, as a reading of the script, as opposed to a TV viewing, will indicate. After a few deft wobbles by Romney, Obama caught on to the bait and switch. The key question now, and for the remaining 33 days of the campaign, is whether the American voters will accept the Etch A Sketch image of 65-year-old Willard Mitt Romney.

Stay tuned.

Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.

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