The great sports announcer Howard Cosell, a huge fan of boxing for years, famously came to hate the sport for the inhumane toll it took on the bodies and minds of its heroes. This reaction I’m having to the debate last night is not a Cosell-like awakening to the viciousness of politics – I love politics, and there are plenty of people in government whom I admire for their ability to rise above it as blood sport. I saw this debate as reasonably robust, but nothing dramatic. This is more specific: this is a Cosell-like aversion to boxing, and an assertion that a debate is not a boxing match.
I’ve had as much fun as the next Democrat in the last few days, anticipating the first big match up, simultaneously groaning about and reveling in the counting down, hyping up, handicapping, and ubiquitous use of sports metaphors. The buildup made me realize how high the stakes of this race feel to a lot of us. It’s taken on a feeling of more than an election. It’s personal. Barack Obama has become a representative of our core beliefs about this country, and the contrast in the two major schools of thought about how to run it is sharply delineated. It’s the Intervention Team against the Bootstraps Team. The Diplomats versus the Generals. Labor versus Management.
My brain tends to read political debates as a collection of arguments with strengths and weaknesses, rather than as a contest that ends with a clear winner. We have a series of debates and a whole season of appearances and interviews to evaluate candidates, and the final score is tallied by virtue of the vote on Election Day. I always bristle a little at declarations of clean-cut victory or defeat after debates. As the one last night ended, I thought it was a really good example of that various-strengths-and-weaknesses combination. So I was especially thrown by the degree of clarity with which some claimed to view the outcome.
Governor Romney was more self-assured than usual; less awkward and defensive. His thoughts seemed clear, and he was willing to commit to a point of view, at least for the setting of that debate. He was assertive and convincing, and if I were impartial, and less at odds with what he said, I’m sure I would have thought he acquitted himself well.
On the other hand, each time the President spoke, I heard a depth of understanding that can only come with direct experience in grappling specifically with the problems at hand: that’s the inherent advantage of the incumbent. Obama also funneled that understanding into lay terms effectively. He conveyed an exposure to the inner workings of the Oval Office, conviction about the way forward, and a connection to the average American’s concerns.
Romney conveyed no less conviction, and if his understanding of the job description of President is more theoretical, he didn’t sound ignorant. For the first time in his campaign I saw some passion – a more energetic expression of the desire to contribute. But in the context of his candidacy as a whole, I remain convinced that he doesn't have any grasp of what the country needs. And even if I had been out of the loop for a year and had only this debate to measure him by, as a liberal Democrat my approach to problem-solving is so different from his that I wouldn’t have any interest in giving him a shot as president. In other words, while he presented himself better than usual, there were no surprises in his proposals. He did an adequate job of describing an approach I happen to disagree with fervently.
I haven’t been out of the loop, though, and have observed him for many months. I can only attribute his enthusiasm last night to the fact that he is a goal-oriented, driven professional. Importantly, like so many Americans these days I know enough about the issues to observe that he was making false claims, contradicting his own assertions, dodging questions about specifics, and painting a picture of mistakes and failures on the President's part that don’t match the facts.
If we are to evaluate debate performance partly on the basis of facial expression, I read Obama as quietly offended by the latter phenomena. It is no secret that I am a partisan for the president. I was in his corner early on, I was his apologist during the roughest months of his first term, and I have only grown more sympathetic to the challenges he faces, and ever more confident in his ability to meet them. So it was with a feeling of almost affectionate allegiance that I wanted him to react powerfully to Romney, who was staking a claim to a superior grasp of our country’s problems and a greater ability to solve them. I stood uncomfortably in Obama’s shoes, imagining what it was like to be doing a hard job well, pushing forward, seeing steady results, and having an outsider publicly attack your work from every angle, suggesting you have no idea what you’re doing. It must be even more frustrating when such attacks are made with bluster, and without integrity or merit.
But this is what a president signs up for. You get eight years, in two increments, and at the halfway point you have to put yourself out there and take on all comers. As a country, we require that you face each other – incumbent and challenger - on equal footing. We ask you to stand on a stage both literal and figurative, and by turns defer to each others right to speak. We have no royalty here.
In that respect I think it’s absolutely right and laudable that when the President gathered his thoughts to respond to the Governor, we heard less fire and more practical disagreement with Governor Romney’s positions. He didn’t counter Romney’s excesses of self-assurance. What he did do was point out false claims, and - as time allowed - reiterate his own positions.
I was aghast later to hear condemnation for Obama’s "inability to realize he was on the ropes” and “refusal to come back swinging.” Certainly, he should get feedback from his team about how to be more nimble in his responses next time. He’ll need to practice how to counter the briskly-paced inaccuracies and deceptively-appealing presentation of this new iteration of Romney the candidate. He should quit writing so much and keep his face turned up. But the last thing we need to see is a fight.
Barack Obama is not a boxer. I personally don’t want a boxer as a president, and in 2008, neither did a majority of Americans. Either that is still the case, or we lose this one. But the solution is not to ask for a whole new version of Barack Obama. Yes, he’s going to have to step it up somehow if this race gets closer. No, he doesn’t get to coast. He has to be persuasive. But I think we can count on him to do all that. The man is clearly competitive by nature, and in no short supply of healthy ego. He is creative, good-humored, and determined. Interestingly, Obama has been dubbed everything from the consummate politician to a poor debater; from a great orator to “too professorial.” We‘d benefit from realizing he is a little bit of each of those, and trust that his competence, energy and commitment will shine through.
The President is our representative, and serves at the pleasure of the electorate. We need him to advocate for us. But we will do him, ourselves, and the country a grave disservice if we fall into the trap of 2008: “You are our hope – go forth and make this happen. We will be the fans and the analysts.” How many of those railing against a weak performance by the president last night are also the ones who said this year, “Look, I’ll probably vote for him again, but I’m not going to volunteer like last time. I’ll give him another shot, but not my time and money. The magic isn’t there this time. I may not like Romney, but I’m not about to go out and register voters, or sit in a metal chair and make phone calls for Obama. He hasn’t earned it.”
If we’re going to see this as a sport, let’s at least shut down the boxing ring and make it a team sport.