Foot-in-mouth disease not always fatal
The 2012 Republican presidential campaign has provided a bounty of infelicitous phrasings, wrongheaded assertions and embarrassing gaffes.
There was Texas Gov. Rick Perry's memory lapse on the debate stage, which came to be known as his "oops moment."
There was Michele Bachmann in Waterloo, Iowa, trumpeting her pride at hailing from the same hometown as John Wayne, only to learn that her homie was serial killer John Wayne Gacy. John Wayne, the actor, was born in Winterset, about three hours away.
Now comes Mitt Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who compared his candidate's conservative positions in the primary to a child's erasable art toy. "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Fehrn strom told CNN on Wednesday. "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
With that flippant remark, Fehrnstrom gave credence to a suspicion among some conservatives that Romney is politically inauthentic, that he'll change positions as easily as a child makes a new drawing.
But will it hurt him in the long run? Probably not.
Gaffes that inflict lasting damage involve more than poor word choices. They are boneheaded misstatements (as when President Gerald Ford wrongly insisted during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination). Or they are slips that crystallize something voters feel or sense about a candidate -- lack of readiness for the job at hand, incompetence, inauthenticity, snobbery or disdain for the lives of average Americans.
"Ferhnstrom's comments put a fresh headline on an old argument," said former Republican political strategist Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
But because it did not come from the candidate himself, the sting will probably soon fade.
"If one of Barack Obama's advisers had talked about working class voters clinging to guns and religion, we would have long since forgotten about it," Schnur said, referring to a comment then-candidate Obama made about Pennsylvania's white rural voters at a private fundraiser in San Francisco in 2008. "If Romney had made the Etch-A-Sketch comment, it would have dogged him for the rest of the campaign."
Every campaign brings moments the candidates wish they could take back.
Democratic candidate Michael S. Dukakis reinforced an impression of dorkiness in 1988 when he strapped on a helmet and was photographed poking his head out of a tank. President George H.W. Bush conveyed blue-blooded boredom by checking his watch during a debate with Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Democrat Howard Dean screamed in a most unpresidential manner after losing the Iowa caucuses in 2004. In September 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain asserted that the "fundamentals of our economy are strong" as the county's banks, auto industry and housing market were collapsing.
Although some gaffes take a while to seep into the popular culture, the potential for humiliation is instantaneous. Perry's staff, for instance, knew immediately that their candidate was in trouble for forgetting the third department -- Energy -- that he had vowed to eliminate. "Your instincts just tell you, 'Oh my gosh, this is really bad,' " said Robert Haus, the Iowa Republican strategist who ran Perry's campaign in that state.