Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch a Sketch
Mitt Romney’s adviser has been helping candidates erase inconvenient positions for a long time.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.