Political rule number 1: Don’t take a selfie with Bozo the Clown. Your opponents will use it forever in political ads.

Political rule number 2: Don’t call yourself Spartacus. You will be ridiculed today, tomorrow, and forever.

Somebody forgot rule number 2, and the man who forgot it, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), will pay a price.

The junior senator from New Jersey is looking ever-more junior by the day. He is now the butt of every prankster with Photoshop and a picture of Kirk Douglas in a gladiator’s costume.

True story. Today, when I Googled “Spartacus,” the search engine helpfully added a second word, “Booker.”

Although the ridicule will fade, it will return every time Sen. Booker seeks the presidency, which will probably be for the rest of his life. Breathtakingly stupid comments like Booker’s “I am Spartacus” are like red wine spilled on a white carpet. You can mop and scrub them, but they don’t really disappear.

Why do some mistakes like this live so long and others fade away so quickly?

The ones that live are those that reveal—and congeal—our deep-seated images of the person who made them. They do so succinctly, memorably. Their opponents know that and seize upon them. So do comedians and editorial cartoonists, unless they are unwilling to joke about a candidate they support (an all-too-common ailment these days).

Consider a few Great Fumbles from recent U.S. political history.

The two most consequential were:

  • Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” referring to Trump supporters, and
  • Mitt Romney’s “47 percent,” referring to people who “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Not a smart thing to say at a high-priced fundraising dinner, especially when your opponent is saying you are rich and out-of-touch with ordinary Americans. Even worse when your opponent points out that the 47% figure includes people on military pensions.

These were deep, self-inflicted wounds—and they never healed completely. Both were secretly recorded, like Donald Trump’s “grab them by the p*%^y” comment. Everyone wants to know a secret, which made their release even more powerful. They revealed a candidate’s unscripted side, which seemed truthful for two reasons. First, it was unguarded and said “in confidence” to a select group.

Second, it matched and reinforced our prior misgivings about the candidate.

Hillary’s comment showed that she not only loathed her opponent, she loathed the people who supported him. In half-a-sentence, she revealed what she was so often charged with embodying: the coastal elite’s contempt for ordinary Americans. Since Donald Trump was running hard against those elites, he seized upon it. His supporters loved it. They began wearing “I am a deplorable” hats and filled the internet with that meme, worn as a badge of honor. It was reminiscent of a 1911 gubernatorial campaign in Mississippi, where supporters of one candidate began wearing red neckties after an adversary called them rednecks.

Hillary’s mistake was especially dumb because Barack Obama made the same one in 2008. As one newspaper described it, “Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: ‘They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’” Obama’s opponents painted that as elitist contempt for rural America and a frontal attack on their religious faith and the right to bear arms. Obama was able to blunt that attack with his engaging and sometimes-folksy style, but he never entirely erased the supercilious image, condensed in that statement.

Hillary, Mitt, and Barack are not alone. Pres. Gerald Ford never erased the image of himself stumbling down the stairs of Air Force One. As a former football player and coach, he was actually as athletic as anyone ever to hold the Presidency. But Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live parody of the president used that clumsiness as Ford’s only characteristic. Chevy made no attempt to look or sound like Ford. He just stumbled around, knocking over everything and looking befuddled. It worked, and not just because
Chevy Chase was a gifted physical comedian, starring on a popular show. It worked because Ford seemed to be stumbling in office. Remember his goofy, fruitless effort to stop inflation by wearing a lapel pin that said “Whip Inflation Now”?

Michael Dukakis made an entirely visual flub, the equivalent of embracing Bozo. He attended a military exercise and was photographed exiting a tank wearing an army helmet that looked too large and utterly inappropriate. To compound the problem, his opponent was running on the urgent need to rebuild the military. That one photograph seemed to say, “There is no way Dukakis can project American armed power against the Soviet Union.” Ronald Reagan could.

Cory Booker’s flub will stick, too. It is concise and memorable, and it captures a side of Booker that seems revealing. It says, “I am grandiose, self-inflating, and narcissistic.” Every candidate for President probably shares those features. So, obviously, does the current occupant. It’s just that most politicians don’t make them the centerpiece of their campaign rallies. Or high-profile Congressional hearings.


Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.