Bring Me the Head of Eric Fehrnstrom

Least surprising news of the day? Veteran conservative columnist Bill McGurn suggests how Mitt Romney can atone for his communications director’s Etch-a-Sketch gaffe:

If Mitt Romney really wants to demonstrate that he’s not simply pandering when he tells us how conservative he is, he needs to fire his campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom….

And here’s McGurn’s “to be sure” graph:

By any objective measure, it’s of course unjust to fire a man for one errant remark. Politics, however, isn’t fair, and neither is the presidency. Mr. Romney’s problem is not his policies or programs; his problem is his credibility: many people just don’t believe he really believes what he is telling us. Firing Mr. Fehrnstrom would be a welcome signal that Mr. Romney is offended by any suggestion, no matter how much it might be later explained away, that he does not really believe what he says — and is ready, willing, and able to erase it away when he thinks he needs to. The worst part is that Mr. Fehrnstrom does not appear to have chosen unfortunate words that distort what he ways trying to say. To the contrary, his problem is that he appears to have inadvertently expressed what he, and by extension the Romney campaign, really does think.

So it would be unjust, and surely Fehrnstrom’s remarks don’t reflect Mitt’s inner-most thoughts, but for that reason, ol’ Eric’s got to go.

This is a very old habit of conservatives who can’t quite control Republican pols, but want to throw their weight around and extract their pound of flesh now and then, just to remind the GOP that they could sabotage the whole operation if they really got mad and decided to talk a walk.

The title of this post is an allusion to the wonderful title of a 1995 Karen Tumulty piece for TIME about conservative demands that presidential candidate and Senate leader Bob Dole fire his chief of staff, Sheila Burke, for various sins against conservative orthodoxy. Dole didn’t succumb to the demands, stubborn cuss that he was. But he got the message, and knew that by refusing to sacrifice Burke, he had implicitly given conservatives a chit for future draughts on his account of credibility with “the base.”

Here, too, a lot of the caterwauling about Fehrnstrom and Etch-a-Sketch is a flare sent up to remind Romney that even though hard-core conservatives can’t really block his nomination (unless, of course, he keeps making mistakes that give the barely-breathing campaign of Rick Santorum a lifeline), they can make his life miserable from now until November. He can pay them now, with a little symbolic blood-letting, but in any event he will pay them later, when he stages his convention, writes his platform, chooses his running-mate, devises his general election message, and–most importantly–when he tries to govern if elected.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.