For those of us who thrive on politics, there are certain watershed moments that convince us immediately when a candidate has just won or lost an election. My first such memory took place in 1960. John F. Kennedy was debating Richard Nixon. I remember watching that debate with my dad on our old black-and-white Philco and thinking to myself, “Nixon sure is sweating a lot. That doesn’t look good.” It wasn’t, and he lost.
In 1968, Mitt Romney’s father, George, then governor of Michigan, was a leading candidate for president — until he said he had been “brainwashed” concerning the Vietnam War. Nixon, not Romney, became the GOP nominee, and was elected president later that year.
Sen. Ed Muskie was on his way to the 1972 Democratic nomination until he delivered a tearful speech about some unpleasant things that had been said about his wife. He lost the nomination to the hapless, leftwing George McGovern.
Fast-forward to 1976. Jimmy Carter was debating the accidental president, Gerald Ford, who said that Poland was not under Soviet domination and never would be as long as he was in the White House. Say what? Checkmate, Carter.
Four years later, Democrats sought to convince voters that Ronald Reagan was a nuclear cowboy so they could brand him as a dangerous extremist like they had Barry Goldwater 16 years earlier. I remember laughing out loud when I heard Carter say, “I asked my daughter, Amy, what issue concerned her most, and she said, ‘Daddy, it’s nuclear proliferation.’” Bye-bye, White House. Hello, Habitat for Humanity.
Walter Mondale had two defining moments in 1984. The first came during his acceptance speech at the Democrat convention, when he said, “Ronald Reagan will raise your taxes. So will I. The difference is, he won’t tell you. I just did.”
The other moment is the stuff of political legend. In his first debate with Mondale, the 73-year-old Reagan seemed to falter a time or two. During their second debate, the Gipper was asked about concerns over his age, to which he famously replied, “I am not going to make age an issue in this campaign. I will not, for political purposes, exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale laughed. The press laughed. America laughed. And the election was over. Reagan won 49 states.
In 1988, some genius in the Michael Dukakis campaign decided it would be a good photo op to have the little guy drive around in a tank looking like Snoopy. Bad idea.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush made the fatal mistake of looking at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The camera caught it, and that “I’d really rather be somewhere else” message was instantaneous.
In the 2000 race, Al Gore made a deliberate point of sighing repeatedly into his microphone, and invading George W. Bush’s personal space during one of their debates.
Howard Dean’s concession after the Iowa caucuses in 2004 became known as the “I have a scream speech.” His meltdown on stage became fodder for late night comics and was watched endlessly on the Internet. The incident destroyed what was left of his campaign.
So far this year, Herman Cain had to ask a reporter to remind him of President Obama’s position on the uprising in Libya, and Rick Perry has had more cringing gaffes and bloopers than anyone in recent memory.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney’s big wager. During a recent GOP debate, the fading former frontrunner tried to make a $10,000 bet with Perry over something Romney wrote in his book. Perry, who seemed taken aback at the suggestion, told Romney, “I’m not in the betting business.”
Nor should Romney be. The life savings of many Americans does not amount to the sum Romney so casually offered to wager. Whether this turns out to be a candidacy-killing moment for Romney remains to be seen, but with his net worth estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, this is a man with a tin ear.
Reportedly, Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, told him after the debate, “There are some things you do really well. Betting is not one of them.”