04/09/2008 07:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Dukakis Moment: Bowling Blunders Matter

Last week many had their fun poking fun at Barack Obama's gutter balls. Monday on Ellen Hillary Clinton decided to toss a little ball at some pins on set in order to keep Obama's bowling blunder in the conversation. It wasn't the most tactful response. But Obama's poor showing was again talked about.

Forest for the trees, bad bowling really should not matter in the making of the president. Right? We are likely in a recession. We are at war. A lot of folks don't have health insurance. Great presidents need not be able to bowl. But then, it does matter if he is to win that Oval Office.

What Obama's bowling highlighted was a larger mistake he cannot make when reaching out to the white working and middle class. He cannot be the man he is not.

This has less to do with his race than his Ivy League professorial demeanor. Democrats have long nominated candidates who exude the worst stereotypes of the conceived liberal elitist.

It's not bowling that's the point. Many modern presidential candidates have bowled on the trail. But there is something particularly embarrassing about a 37 in seven frames for a candidate who is attempting to prove he is one of the guys.

What could prove fatal is if Obama keeps making this mistake. A far more consequential version occurred in the 1988 race. Michael Dukakis donned military coveralls on top of his suit, got inside that M-1 tank, gripped the machine gun, and murmured "rat-a-tat." He looked like a boy playing war and was pummeled for his Patton moment.

"The tank has to go down in history as one of the classic political blunders in the world," Ronald Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, once told me. "It goes back to my point. You can't stretch the candidate. You've got to portray who he naturally is."

All politics is Shakespeare. When John Kerry spent the whole of his 2004 convention calling attention to his service in Vietnam, it highlighted Democrats' own national security insecurity. "The lady doth protests too much," as it was put in Hamlet.

Obama's bowling was not Dukakis' tank moment. But it did become the butt of late night comedians. Jimmy Kimmel quipped, "I bowled a 37 when I was a baby and I was drunk, by the way."

Obama can ill afford to offer Kimmel such good material if he is to make inroads with middle and working class white men. Issues matter, but not as much as our conception of the person advocating those issues.

This was not Obama's first time stepping into a role he could not pull off. Last October, Obama went on Ellen himself. He danced in a way that was well, consistent with a stiff professor. But of course that's an issue of undermining his "cool," a positive perception not so easily refuted by John McCain. Bowling is an issue of undermining his inner regular Joe, one easily refuted by McCain.

Obama should have known that if he cannot bowl, he should not bowl. A president does not throw out the first pitch, if he cannot throw a pitch. It has always been a male presidential candidate's burden to not sissify him self on the campaign trail, an inconvenience that falls particularly on Democratic candidates because of past mistakes. That does not mean bowling is that masculine. It's not in fact. But it is emasculating to attempt to be the kind of guy that bowls and look like the kind of guy who does not.

It would be absurd to discuss bowling in the context of the presidency if it did not evoke a larger lesson. Reagan, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, understood that symbols, narratives, and sets win presidencies. Should Obama not, it will lead to a Dukakis-like moment that could serve as his tattooed slip up.

Consider JFK. Even as he was suffering from Addison's disease he was shown swimming or tossing a football with his family. FDR more famously hid his disability. But he also pioneered the use of themes in radio to captivate voters. In this YouTube age a candidate's image cannot be tailored as even Reagan's was. But then images now matter all the more because the mistakes are replayed ad nauseam.

Obama's bus tour through Pennsylvania was an attempt to ground his lofty image. In America, a presidential candidate cannot just care about the people he must show he is one of the people. So Obama ate chilidogs. Fed a calf. Toured a factory. The trip was meant to show him as one of us. But he ended up looking like one of them -- them being that liberal caricature.

It is axiomatic in presidential politics that a candidate must refute the worst stereotypes of his party. At least Kerry was a good shot when he put on L.L. Bean and blew two pheasants out of the sky. The problem was Kerry also went parasailing and snowboarding, against his senior staff's advice. The elite vacations reaffirmed the negative perception of liberals as elite. That, like the tank moment, made it into Republican ads.

Obama decries the superficial in our politics. And perhaps he can win denouncing gutter politics and throwing gutter balls. But that's not the making of past presidents. Sometimes, even as we "turn the page" it's important to consider the lessons of all those earlier chapters (even the silly ones).


David Paul Kuhn, a senior political writer, is author of the The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma.