Where did you stand on the great Etch-a-Sketch controversy last week? Were you with Team Romney, which started the controversy with an ill-designed metaphor? Or were you with Team Santorum or Team Gingrich, which went on the attack by putting Etch-a-Sketch toys into the hands of their candidates to wave around on stage?
Or were you like the media and the pundits? Were you so busy gorging yourself on various forms of the Etch-a-Sketch metaphor — from every angle — that you pounced on any morsel that might sound like a new perspective on the goofy line?
Or were you more like me? I was vaguely aware of a very stupid controversy, but I pretty much ignored it — because it meant absolutely nothing.
The Etch-a-Sketch story is the latest example of something I’ve seen for more than 20 years. When you’re inside politics, you can tend to assume — without ever consciously deciding to — that people outside the political bubble care just as much as you do about the trivia inside that bubble. I was reminded of that Tuesday because of a short story in the Washington Post. A reporter from the Post seemed surprised that a poll shows that 55 percent of people never even heard of the whole Etch-a-Sketch silliness last week.
My experience is that most people inside of politics honestly think that the things they’re talking about are on the minds and lips of intelligent people everywhere. They believe that what they do is so Important — with a capital I — that everyone must know and care about it. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s just an attitude that you pick up among them. They believe — on some level — that people care about the subtleties of the political arguments they’re in the middle of with their opponents. The idea that most people don’t even care about a tempest in a teapot such as the Etch-a-Sketch episode would suggest that maybe what they spend all day doing isn’t as important as what they believe — and they can’t handle that.
The more people are inside the political cocoon — addicted to the high of fighting those political fights and following the “industry” like a sports junkie — the more likely they are to believe that solutions in life come from politics. The more people who believe that, the less likely they are to leave others alone to live real life instead.
We’ve tried all sorts of things to make politics more reasonable and responsive to real people. We’ve tried all sorts of campaign finance reform since 1974. We’ve tried term limits. We’ve tried third parties and independent movements of various kinds. But nothing seems to change. So I have a simple suggestion.
I propose that we establish a mentor program for politicians and political reporters. We could have volunteers from real life — the kinds of people who wouldn’t bother paying attention to Etch-a-Sketch silliness — who would be paired with politicians and political reporters. It would be sort of like a Big Brother program or a business mentoring program, but the people from real life would teach the people from inside the political bubble about real life instead of how to stay away from crime and drugs. (Well, maybe that, too, but that’s another issue.)
The politicos could spend a week being “embedded” in real life with their mentors. They could go to work with them and to church and Little League practice and the grocery store. They could listen to the mentor and his friends talk about real life and the things that matter to them. Maybe they could learn a few things to carry back with them.
Maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe it wouldn’t make any difference. But there’s a chance — a small one — that the next time a political advisor sat in a strategy session and someone proposed having the candidate wave an Etch-a-Sketch on stage, maybe somebody at the table would have the guts to laugh and say, “You know what? Real people don’t care about this.” Maybe a reporter would have the guts to point out that the controversy at hand was a manufactured thing that didn’t make a lick of difference to real people. Maybe.
It’s just a fantasy, but I can dream, can’t I? I have the plan all diagrammed right here. Want to see it? It’s on my Etch-a-Sketch.
Note: I should point out that Ron Paul was the only one of Romney’s opponents to take an approach to Etch-a-Sketch-gate in line with what I’d prefer. Not that it will make any difference for him, of course.