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Etch A Sketch Politics

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Last week, Mitt Romney’s communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, made a terrible gaffe: He told the truth, as he saw it, on national TV. Asked, “Is there a concern that Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?” Fehrnstrom answered, “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.”

Etch A Sketch

Campaign Romney’s Eric Fehrnstrom

Fehrnstrom said in public what much of the political class was saying in private. And what he said shouldn’t be shocking. Guess what? Candidates adjust their message in the course of political campaigns, and especially when moving from one stage of the campaign to another, from the nominating contest to the general election. Fehrnstrom may be overly confident about the ability of a campaign to “start all over again,” as if your opponents won’t be there to remind you of past statements, and as if the voters’ minds can simply be wiped clean. Even for gifted campaigns and silver-tongued politicians, resets and restarts aren’t easy. 

But Fehrnstrom’s comment is interesting in a broader way. It captures a certain disposition to politics, a certain understanding of public affairs, that goes beyond campaigns. It expresses the view of the political class, in both parties, that governing is politics, that politics is a kind of perpetual campaign, that a campaign is mostly talk, and that talk is both cheap and changeable. The modern American political class tends to have an Etch A Sketch view of political life as a series of rhetorical resets and opportunistic restarts.

There’s some truth to this view. Politics always has something of sophistry about it. But a healthy politics in a serious country—a healthy political class and a healthy citizenry in a great country—has to realize the limits of mere talk, and especially the limits of cheap and changeable talk.

Our politics isn’t entirely healthy. Our political class in particular is more sophistic than ever—believing in the predominance of talk, the centrality of “messaging,” the power of spin, the possibility of a tricky game change. But politics isn’t simply a game. And even to the degree that it is, the political class overestimates its ability to affect the outcome by clever words and tactical maneuvers.

The American public, like most publics, is both susceptible and resistant to sophistry. But in general the public has a sounder view of politics than the political class, if only because, living in a world of real consequences, the public tends to know that reality can’t be willfully reset and easily restarted. The real world can’t be Etch A Sketched. It requires and responds to facts and deeds, not mere talk.

Talk matters. But a healthy politics understands the limits of rhetoric. If you accumulate $15 trillion of debt, and are adding another $1 trillion a year, you can’t talk that away or shake that up rhetorically and restart all over again. You can’t Etch A Sketch that reality away—as President Obama has tried to do in a series of budget documents that don’t deserve to be called budgets. You need to make real choices, embodied in real budgets, that change the course we’re on.

A healthy politics also knows that if the mullahs in Iran get nuclear weapons, there will be actual consequences, and it knows that preventing the Iranian regime from getting nuclear weapons will require action, not talk. Such deeds will be difficult and risky. But the public knows that not to act is a choice as well. And it knows that once the Iranian regime goes nuclear, you don’t get to hit a reset button and start all over again.

A healthy politics grasps that our enemies can’t be sweet-talked, and that troop levels can’t just be reset or commitments revised for political convenience, without anyone paying a real price.

A healthy politics realizes that calling an expensive piece of legislation the “Affordable Care Act” doesn’t make it affordable, that promising you can keep your doctor doesn’t mean you’ll be able to, and that calling an Independent Payment Advisory Board independent and advisory doesn’t make it so.

The American public tends to appreciate these realities. Many in the political class—indeed many of our elites, especially those of us who etch and sketch for a living—tend to want to show our cleverness by arguing realities away. Sophistry is the fatal conceit of the political class in our time. For reasons having to do with the very nature of modern liberalism, the left is more expert at sophistry than the right. That’s why Republicans will have difficulty winning an Etch A Sketch election. Obama is the master of transient talk and vanishing promises. The Republican nominee won’t beat him at his own game. But the Republican nominee can elevate our politics and prevail by putting before the public a reality-based choice.

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