A look back from the future on the election of 2012:
By November 2011, Herman Cain became yet another Republican front-runner whose star began to fade as quickly as it rose.
Allegations of sexual harassment were eclipsed by a succession of gaffes, including one in which Cain found himself momentarily unable to remember whether or not he agreed with President Obama on intervening in Libya.
"I've got all this stuff twirlin' around in my head," he explained to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, as campaign aides quickly began updating their resumes and checking job openings.
Meanwhile, former front-runner Rick Perry dashed hopes of a resurgence when he found himself in front of a debate audience, unable to remember exactly which federal agencies he wanted to abolish.
Fading candidate Michele Bachmann startled observers when she noted that "If you look at China, they don't have food stamps. If you look at China ... they save for their own retirement security. They don't have AFDC. They don't have the modern welfare state. And China's growing."
This became the first time in anyone's memory that a Republican candidate proposed that the antidote for alleged socialism in America was to emulate a repressive communist dictatorship.
A possible revival of the moribund candidacy of former Congressman Newt Gingrich faltered and died when it was revealed that Gingrich had been paid between $1.6 million and $1.8 million in consulting fees by the mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac, an organization which the American right despised only slightly less than the ACLU.
It began to look more and more as if the nomination was going to go, almost by default, to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a man who had about as much backbone as one of the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men used to advertise car dealerships and other businesses.
Faced with this unpalatable prospect, a secret group of powerful conservatives met in an undisclosed location to come up with an alternative. After days of increasingly desperate wrangling, they came up with a bold and unprecedented plan: They would place a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan into the contest for the Republican nomination.
Reaction to the announcement was tumultuous. Pundits asked, "What qualifications does a cardboard cutout have to run against Obama?" Reagan Cutout campaign manager Ed Rollins answered succinctly: "He's not Mitt Romney." When asked what qualifications the Cutout had to be president, Rollins was equally concise: "He's not Barack Obama."
These statements clinched the Cutout's support from the right. "Barack Obama was unqualified and inexperienced," several callers to right-wing talk radio shows noted, "so now it's our turn to nominate someone even more incapable."
A few members of the press corps attempted to point out that a piece of cardboard was not, in fact, eligible to be president; after receiving angry denunciations from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, they were immediately shut down by network executives and publishers terrified of being accused of "liberal bias."
At the next debate, the Cut-out received high marks for "looking presidential" and "avoiding major gaffes," largely because, being made of paper, it answered no questions. Conservative pundit Bill Kristol noted that "the Cutout doesn't have the same baggage as Romney, particularly in the area of health care."
Support for the Cutout grew on the right, particularly when the campaign rolled out its slogan: "Reagan Cutout: He's Not Obama."
By the time of the Republican convention, all of the other candidates had dropped away, with a disgusted Romney throwing in the towel the month before. The convention was a raucous affair, with the crowd hysterically acclaiming the nomination with shouts of "Not Obama! Not Obama!"
Those words, in fact, became the campaign's answer to every query as to policy: "What is the Cutout's position on the situation in the Middle East?"
"Not Obama's, that's for sure. Oh, and we're going to cut their taxes."
Even as polls showed the Cutout's approval numbers slipping, new campaign manager Sarah Palin remained outwardly confident, saying: "We're gonna be dependin' on those real Americans to do that winnin' thing for us, you betcha."
Even after Palin inexplicably resigned halfway through the campaign, her replacement, Joe the Plumber, predicted an easy win because, in his words, "You know. Not Obama. Also, tax cuts."
The American people, however, disagreed. Barack Obama was voted to a second term by the largest majority in American history, 85 percent to 15 percent. American conservatives had to learn the bitter lesson: No matter how weak you think a candidate is, you need something more than "I'm not him."