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How Romney Could Become Dukakis

March 23, 2012

Sometimes they never recover. Even now, to the extent anyone remembers it at all, the 1988 presidential campaign lives on in memory in one indelible image: that of Michael Dukakis bouncing around in a tank, an oversized helmet on his head and a goofy grin on his face, as if even he knew that, at that moment, he'd just blown his chances to get to the White House. Dan Quayle never recovered from his public misspelling of "potato," just as Sarah Palin will never recover from Tina Fey's lacerating parody of her in 2008 and Julianne Moore's nail-in-the-coffin portrayal in "Game Change."

It's one of the unwritten corollaries to presidential politics: if you become a joke, people won't vote for you. 

It would be a cruel irony indeed for Mitt Romney, whose father's political career was ended with one indelible word--"brainwashed"--if the son suffered the same fate at the hands of one of his most loyal aides, Eric Fehrnstrom. But if the Obama campaign were smart, right now it would be using some of its millions of dollars to hire the best former "Saturday Night Live" writers out there, all in an effort to keep the country laughing at the image of Mitt Romney as "the Etch A Sketch candidate."

That might mean taking a page from George H.W. Bush's campaign. The late Lee Atwater, in some ways the founder of modern attack politics, helped to turn what was intended to be an ad that bolstered Dukakis's weak image on defense into devastating and defining imagery.

Similarly, the Etch A Sketch image is almost certain to linger on--helped by the giddy pouncing of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich--because it amounted to a bull's eye on Romney's central vulnerability. The Obama team had already been calling him a man without a "core," but now the internet is filled with images of Romney's face about to be erased on the iconic children's toy. Much as Michael Dukakis handed George H.W. Bush--who was losing in the polls at the time-- a priceless gift, the Romney campaign seems to have done the same for Obama. 

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