Sports analogies and debate performances
Posted: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 7:00 pm
By CARL GOLDEN
In the coverage of politics and campaigns, sports metaphors and analogies abound — home run, soft ball, Hail Mary, small ball, knockout punch, etc., etc.
One of the better ones involves comparing a candidate’s television advertising to professional football: First, there’s a secret meeting (huddle), followed by thirty seconds of extreme violence.
Last week’s presidential debate brought another one to mind. University of Texas football coach Darryl Royal, once asked why he stuck almost exclusively to running plays, replied: “’Cause when you throw the ball, three things can happen. Two of them are bad.”
Much like the forward pass, there are three debate outcomes for an incumbent: win, lose or draw. Two of them are bad.
The overwhelming media consensus in the aftermath of his debate with Mitt Romney was that President Obama came up the loser. Only the most ardent silver lining seekers called it a draw. No one claimed an Obama victory.
Going into the debate, Romney had to prove he belonged on the same stage and that he was the President’s equal. Obama needed to demonstrate he was in charge, not only of the issue substance, but — by extension — of the country.
Romney did, Obama didn’t.
Romney commanded the stage — a dominant, self-assured presence —- while Obama appeared out of sorts, unsure and tentative, never able to forge his customary instant connection with the audience.
While the media/academic/pundit world decries body language as a criteria by which voters should reach decisions, it nonetheless has become as critical a part of debate preparation as the 200-page briefing book.
Romney’s fluency in body language was smooth and impressive. Obama was mute.
The candidates’ performances jolted the media into a new narrative. Now, analysts proclaimed, it was a race! Why it wasn’t a race heading into the debate when only a few points separated the two men was dismissed as the stuff of earlier news cycles.
Obama supporters offered a multitude of theories to explain their candidate’s showing — these types of structured debates have never been his strongest point, his preparation time was interrupted constantly by the press of presidential business, and — perhaps the most bizarre rationale offered by former Vice President Al Gore — that the 5,000 foot altitude in Denver adversely affected his reactions.
Perhaps the explanation that came closest to the truth was that the President and his campaign took Romney too lightly, convinced, mistakenly as it turned out, that his campaign history of gaffes and the seemingly constant necessity of clarifying ill-considered remarks, was enough to do him in.
The Romney Obama faced, however, was vastly different and when it became obvious that the history was overstated and that Romney was forceful, aggressive, and eager to engage him, the President fell into a defensive position, never a comfortable place to be.
He spent far too much time staring down at his podium as if seeking help or, at the very least, some answers, while Romney barreled ahead with criticisms and quick responses.
Even at the debate’s conclusion, the President failed to look into the camera and instead told the 60 million or so Americans watching that he was not a perfect man and that he’d never portrayed himself as one. It was a statement reeking of defeatism, delivered in an almost whining plea for understanding.
Without question, Romney energized his campaign, quieted his grousing critics, and gave reasons to reluctant donors to re-think their decisions.
The Obama campaign pledged “readjustments” in their approach to the next debate, suggesting a tougher and more aggressive President, primed and eager to get into the center of the ring and swap roundhouse rights with Romney.
The change in strategy reflects their new respect for Romney and is a tacit admission they had underestimated him. They’d believed their own press clippings — always a dangerous thing to do — and suffered the humiliating sting of overconfidence.
Those readjustments, of course, won’t be lost on the Romney campaign and it will be prepared. It will strive to maintain the respect it won in the first debate, understanding that the momentum it created last week can vanish in an instant.
In any event, look for more sports analogies as the debates unfold, the polls tighten or lengthen, and Nov. 6 draws nearer.
You know, like “it ain’t over till it’s over,” or “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
For Obama, Darryl Royal’s warning about forward passes should be reprinted on page one of his briefing book.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. You can reach him at cgolden1937@gmail.
This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.
Published in The Messenger 10.9.12