It is an unusual question, made even more difficult to answer in that so few politicians willingly do so. But that may be the issue that Barack Obama is facing, even so late in this campaign.
A few months ago, everything looked rosy for the president. The Republican Party nominated the man he wanted to run against. The president’s popularity, though not at a high, pointed to an easy re-election. Then, suddenly, matters turned
- The economy weakened.
- Ethical and judgmental issues began to surface.
- Foreign policy turned disastrous.
- Mitt Romney was not the Caspar Milquetoast anticipated.
Politics and Boxing
Politics is not croquet. It is more like boxing, a one-on-one contest that can be brutal. Politicians only stay in office by beating up on opponents.
Political debates are the equivalent of boxing matches. Candidates vie for supremacy via verbal jousting. Seventy million people witnessed the first debate. It was an old-fashioned beat-down — one man figuratively administering a thrashing to the other. Obama was shown to be under-sized, under-equipped and under-trained. Had it been a boxing match it would have been stopped inside of three rounds.
Political fans were surprised by the one-sided outcome. Obama rooters suffered two surprises. They underestimated the opponent and vastly overestimated their guy. Romney fans had one surprise and it was a pleasant one — they underestimated their guy. Objective political observers were probably more surprised by the performance of Romney than the collapse of Obama.
As I watched the first Romney – Obama debate, it reminded me of a boxing match which took place on February 25, 1964. It was the first championship fight for Cassius Clay. Clay, like Romney, was a prohibitive underdog, entering the ring as a 7:1 underdog. Most people gave him no chance.
Sonny Liston was the heavyweight champion of the world, a brute of a man. Liston was an ex-con who many fighters were afraid to engage. He was a one-man wrecking ball. He was tough, strong and mean. Compared to him, Mike Tyson could pass for a choir boy. Liston’s scowl was enough to make most men take an automatic eight-count.
Clay was a young, scrawny, mouthy kid with fast hands and feet. Next to Liston, he looked like he had not yet attained puberty. Nevertheless, he taunted this bear of a man for months before the fight. Some people questioned Clay’s sanity. Howard Cosell, a giant among the sports media and bigger than a giant in his own mind, thought that Liston literally might kill the young challenger in the ring.
Clay came out and immediately took control of the fight. He danced in and out, staying away from the powerful but slow Liston. Clay’s speed and dexterity nullified Liston’s skills. Methodically Clay picked Goliath apart. Liston had no answer for Clay’s movement. Frustrated and unable to deal with the challenger, Liston quit. He surrendered his crown from his corner rather than come out for the seventh round. Complete coverage of this fight can be seen here.
This fight kept flashing through my mind as an analogue to the debate. In terms of expectations, Romney was the serious underdog. He was up against a supposed formidable giant, self-described as our fourth best president and smarter than all his advisers. Media consensus was this debate was a mismatch of Clay-Liston proportions.
Romney, like Clay, came out and took control. Obama had no answer for Romney’s offense. Like Liston, Obama quit. The debate lasted for an hour and a half, but Obama seemingly gave up around the half-way point. He was frustrated, defenseless and beaten.
There are two more presidential debates. For Clay (his name for the second fight had become Mohammed Ali) there was to be one more fight against Liston. The second boxing match turned out worse for Liston. He was knocked out in the first round, felled by what was called a “phantom punch.” The round can be seen in this video:
The second presidential debate should not be as decisive as the first. President Obama will presumably better prepare. But, will that matter? Will better preparation be enough for Obama?
Sonny Liston likely came to the second fight for a payday, but he probably knew he could not win. Ali was the better fighter. Obama, despite all his ego and arrogance, probably realizes he cannot win. For a man so accustomed to being in charge and never questioned by advisers, the potential for another beat down must be terribly discomforting. Messiahs do not react well to humiliation.
The town hall format may serve Obama better than the one-on-one of the first debate. He may be somewhat protected from the direct onslaught he bore in the first. Obama may be able to dance around a bit more, but as Joe Louis observed: “he can run but he can’t hide.”
Obama’s problem is reality. He has his own reality which cannot stand up to facts. Facts to Obama are like kryptonite to Superman — lethal! There is no way to prepare against facts unless they are on your side. Obama has no defense against his own record. Romney will use facts to penetrate Obama’s myths and slogans. Facts are lethal to fantasy. Obama cannot talk about accomplishments. He is forced to talk about things he intends to do. The devastating counter punch, for which there is no defense, is “why haven’t you already done these things?”
Boxers are tough men. They rarely quit. So too are politicians, but there comes a time when the odds are too long and the humiliation and pain are considered too great. Sonny Liston experienced that point twice. I sense Obama is in the position that Sonny Liston was. But how does a politician quit this deep into a campaign? There is no precedent or easy way of dropping out at this point.
When there is no more fire in the belly and you are outclassed in every respect by your opponent, what do you do? Perhaps Roberto Duran, one tough fighter who bowed out with “No Mas” against Sugar Ray Leonard, is available for consultation. How does Obama have his “No Mas” moment gracefully? Or did we witness it already when he quit part way through the first debate?
Does the man who is pretending to be president want to continue pretending to be a candidate? Given his ego, the answer is certainly no. Yet there appears to be no other alternative than to go through the motions and then move to Hawaii after defeat.