Romney’s “Etch a Sketch” Guy Has Helped Others Change Their Positions

How you look at things.
March 22 2012 2:56 PM

Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch a Sketch

Mitt Romney’s adviser has been helping candidates erase inconvenient positions for a long time.

 Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) talks with campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom (R)
Mitt Romney talks with campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who recently compared the campaign to an "Etch a Sketch"

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Is Mitt Romney an Etch a Sketch?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

No way, say Romney’s aides. They insist that when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom went on CNN Wednesday morning and compared the campaign to an Etch a Sketch, he was talking strictly about the mechanics of general elections, not about Romney’s malleability. But before you buy that explanation, look at what Fehrnstrom has said in previous years. He’s been erasing his candidates’ positions for a long time.

In 1994, Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. He had been a pro-life abortion counselor in the Mormon Church, but a private campaign poll warned him that he’d lose the election unless he ran as a pro-choicer. And that’s exactly what he did.

Etch-a-Sketch

At the time, Eric Fehrnstrom was the spokesman for Massachusetts Treasurer Joe Malone. Malone, a longtime pro-lifer, had just received the endorsement of a pro-life group in his bid for re-election. But in June 1994, Fehrnstrom announced that Malone, facing a difficult challenge from a pro-choice opponent, had changed his position.

Fehrnstrom offered a complex, moving account of Malone’s conversion. He told the Boston Globe that Malone had been "troubled by this question for some time” and was "disturbed by the rhetoric" at the GOP’s 1992 national convention. Fehrnstrom said that Malone was still “personally opposed to abortion” but that “women should not be denied access to an abortion if that is their choice." In the Boston Herald, Fehrnstrom added, “There has been a gradual evolution in Joe's thinking on the subject.” In another report, published in the Bond Buyer, Fehrnstrom explained: "Joe Malone is one of a whole generation of people that have changed their views on abortion over time."

Malone won his race, but Romney lost. Eight years later, Romney ran for governor and employed Fehrnstrom as his spokesman. Fehrnstrom assured reporters that Romney was pro-choice: "He has stated and restated his position. … It's exactly the same position as any other prochoice politician.”

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Then the darnedest thing happened. Fehrnstrom’s boss changed his abortion position again. It was a different boss, a different job, and even a different position. Malone had become pro-choice; Romney became pro-life. Once again, Fehrnstrom had to do the explaining. But first, he had to do the erasing.

Romney became governor in 2003. In February 2005, he went to South Carolina to begin selling himself as a culturally conservative presidential candidate. In a speech, he talked about “the sanctity of human life.” A month later, he removed a mention of Roe v. Wade from the annual Massachusetts proclamation honoring “Right to Privacy Day.” When the Globe asked about this, Fehrnstrom insisted that Romney’s position hadn’t changed:

NARAL and Planned Parenthood are the same groups that in the last campaign accused Mitt Romney of being prolife and endorsed his opponents. Now they want us to believe that Mitt Romney was secretly prochoice all along and that he's somehow changed his position. [His] position on abortion is the same today as it was during the 2002 governor's campaign. The governor is personally opposed to abortion, supports parental consent laws, and he is in favor of the ban on partial-birth abortion. He also said he would not change the status quo on abortion in Massachusetts, and neither add nor subtract from those laws, and he hasn't.

That was Fehrnstrom’s first shake of the Romney Etch a Sketch. Out went the old drawing of Romney’s abortion position (“exactly the same position as any other prochoice politician”). In came the new drawing: Romney was simply “opposed to abortion,” not “secretly pro-choice,” as his critics falsely suggested.

Four months later, Romney messed up Fehrnstrom’s picture again. Approaching his decision to run for president, Romney declared himself pro-life and changed his position on Roe. Fehrnstrom had to reach for his Etch a Sketch once more. "The governor freely admits that he has changed his position," Fehrnstrom told the Deseret News in February 2007, when Romney finally announced his candidacy. "He makes no apologies for changing his mind. He admits he had it wrong before and now he is firmly pro-life."

But Fehrnstrom still maintained that Romney hadn’t betrayed the commitments he made to pro-choice activists and voters in 2002. And there, Fehrnstrom had a problem. In March 2007, the Los Angeles Times published an account from Massachusetts pro-choice activists who had met with Romney in 2002 when he was seeking their endorsement in his race for governor. According to their notes, Romney had said that he opposed overturning Roe, that he would preserve abortion rights, that he would be a helpful voice for moderation in the national GOP, and that the judges he appointed would be largely pro-choice. The activists had written down direct quotes from Romney, such as “I'm a strong believer in stating your position and not wavering,” and "I want to be really careful about not changing my position.”

When the Times asked Fehrnstrom for comment, he whipped out his Etch a Sketch:

"People's memories change with time, and change depending on which way the political winds are blowing," said Eric Fehrnstrom, an advisor to Romney … Fehrnstrom, who attended the NARAL meeting … said he did not remember any discussion of judges or Romney saying he would moderate the GOP position on abortion, despite those topics appearing in the NARAL officers' notes.

Three months later, as Romney prepared to speak at the National Right to Life Convention, Fehrnstrom explained Romney’s change of heart to the Associated Press:

Attending the convention will give Romney a chance to educate activists about the former governor's views, resulting from a conversion in late 2004 while studying legislation on embryonic cloning, Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom said. "Governor Romney follows a long line of converts—George Herbert Walker Bush, Henry Hyde and Ronald Reagan to name a few.”

Fehrnstrom’s account of Romney’s conversion, combined with Romney’s own accounts of it, bore an uncanny resemblance to Fehrnstrom’s previous story about Joe Malone’s conversion. Romney, like Malone, had been secretly troubled for some time, though he hadn’t shown it. Romney, like Malone, had been disturbed by the rhetoric of those who espoused his former position—in Romney’s case, a stem-cell researcher who suggested in 2004 that there was no moral problem with destroying early embryos. Romney, like Malone, was one of many people who had changed their views on abortion over time. Everything in the story was the same. Only two things were different: the political environment (Malone faced a pro-choice electorate in Massachusetts, while Romney faced a pro-life electorate in the Republican presidential primaries) and the direction in which the candidate changed his position.

When Malone endorsed Romney’s presidential rival, Rudy Giuliani, in October 2007, Fehrnstrom even had the cheek to dismiss his former client as a predictable pro-choicer: “We all like and respect Joe Malone and Paul Cellucci, but they are both pro-choice and no one should be surprised that they have endorsed Giuliani, who is also pro-choice.”

To be fair, Fehrnstrom doesn’t always have to revise Romney’s history. That’s because Romney does it for him. Romney has been rewriting his record all along. Just this past Sunday, Romney repeated his favorite revisionist tale: “I was a pro-life governor. I came down on the side of life on every issue that was brought to my desk.”

So when Fehrnstrom says the fall campaign is “almost like an Etch a Sketch—you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again,” he isn’t just talking about campaign mechanics. He’s speaking from years of experience with candidates who have changed their positions, always sincerely, though in opposite directions. And in Romney’s case, he’s talking about a candidate with a long history of changing not just his position, but his story.

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