From hot mics to Etch A Sketches—gaffes on the trail aren’t telling us much this year: Character Sketch

(Charles Dharapak/AP)Last Saturday, in a little-noticed event fraught with cosmic significance, Etch A Sketch became the first children's plaything ever to inspire a question on a presidential primary exit poll. (Had there been exit polls in 1968, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew might have been linked with the board game "Risk.") In Louisiana, a surprising 39 percent of GOP voters said they were influenced by Mitt Romney's spokesman comparing the fall campaign to a do-over in Etch A Sketch.

Just as Etch A Sketch was poised to fade from the conversation (presumably to embark on a Hollywood career in "Toy Story 4"), Barack Obama delivered his own headline-ready line to an open mike in Seoul. Seconds before the start of a Monday press conference with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama assured him about missile defense, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."

Suddenly, the press corps had what it craves almost as much as a brokered convention—a matched set of gaffes. As a National Journal headline asked, "Obama's Etch A Sketch Moment?" The Etch A Sketch comment was a truism (all general election campaigns have a different tone than the primaries) that only became a firestorm because it harked back to Romney's history of ideological flexibility. The Obama flexibility line was a truism (all second-term presidents are partial free agents in foreign policy) that only became controversial because it was part of a supposedly secret conversation between world leaders.

From then on, it was a game of pinball politics with lights flashing and balls moving so fast it was hard to keep up. In a hawkish statement that might have been uttered at the foot of the Berlin Wall three decades ago, Romney described Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and warned that Obama was prepared "to cave to Russia on missile defense." Medvedev, presumably also stuck in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, grumbled that Romney's remarks "smacked of Hollywood."

Obama then doubled down on his initial whispered statement by saying publicly at a press conference that the only way a new nuclear agreement can be codified with Russia is "if I'm consulting with the Pentagon, if I'm consulting with Congress, if I've got bipartisan support. And, frankly, the current environment is not conducive to these kinds of thoughtful consultations ... I think I'll do better in 2013."

So what have we learned from all this saber rattling that might be relevant to, yes, 2013 in the Oval Office?

For the most part, Romney's foreign policy views were as blank as a fresh (how could I resist?) Etch A Sketch screen until he began running for president in 2007. Since then, the man from Bain Capital has embraced the Dick Cheney worldview, which broods about security threats from everywhere on the globe with the possible exception of New Zealand and few reliable neighborhoods in Luxembourg. As a result, Romney's warnings that Obama, flush with re-election, would abandon a potential European-based missile defense system are predictable campaign rhetoric.

An intriguing Romney riddle revolves around the roots of his foreign-policy convictions. His father George Romney's presidential ambitions went into a tailspin after he admitted in 1967 that he had been "brainwashed" by pro-war briefings in Vietnam. It is possible (and I am not a reporter who travels with a folding Freudian couch along with my laptop computer) that Mitt concluded from his father's anguish, "The Romneys will never be bamboozled again." More likely, Romney made the obvious calculation that the only GOP primary voters who care about foreign policy are either hawks or libertarian noninterventionists already aligned with Ron Paul.

As president, Obama has demonstrated surprising flexibility on national security matters since his dovish 2008 primary campaign. Anti-warriors on the Democratic left did not expect a President Obama who failed to close down Guantanamo (despite an explicit campaign promise), who embraced drone attacks to assassinate (no euphemisms, please) terrorists and who initially dispatched more troops to Afghanistan. Obama's evolution may have been based on a changed global outlook. Or it may also be true that just as there are purportedly no atheists in foxholes, there are no doves in the Oval Office because of the chilling tenor of daily national-security briefings in an era dominated by terrorism.

That is why it seems implausible that if re-elected Obama will morph into a cross between Neville Chamberlain and Mahatma Gandhi. This is, after all, a president who killed Osama bin Laden—and if somehow you have forgotten, the Obama campaign will be sure to remind you. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden has already offered a pithy summary of the case for re-election: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

But Obama is not likely to win prizes (Nobel or otherwise) for his honesty in sketching out his post-election foreign policy plans. (Not that the president so far has offered anything other than vaporous generalities on domestic policy, either). A little subterfuge is in order since the president knows all to well that the Democrats have suffered politically for their 40-year-old image as weak on national security. The last thing Obama wants to do is to give the Republicans an opening over missile defense, relations with Russia, toughness against Iran or the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

All this is a prelude to an off-kilter fall election campaign, assuming Romney is the GOP nominee. Obama, who appears far happier as a national security president than as the steward of the economy, only wants to talk about bin Laden and the end to the Iraq War. Anything else is under a cone of silence until 2013.

Romney, whose background is in domestic policy from economics to (ssshhh!) health care, will keep stressing other foreign policy issues—no matter how irrelevant—in hopes that somehow he can dent the president's national-security credentials. Small wonder that on Tuesday Romney was continuing his globe-girdling two-front war against Obama and Medvedev with an article that includes the inflammatory lines: "It's not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House."

As for most voters, they worry far more about defending their mortgages than missile defense and brood far more about recession than Russia. In short, it is looking like a politics-stops-at-the-water's-edge election—all bread and butter with a little Etch A Sketch for amusement.

Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.

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