Reporters and pundits writing about politics and particularly presidential debates can’t resist the metaphors of the ring. Why should they? The metaphors work.
“The incumbent fought with a challenger’s aggression while the GOP nominee mostly avoided heated disagreement, except to make jabs on the economy,” reported The Hill, the Capitol Hill political daily. “But if Obama looked to lay Romney out on the canvas and the Republican preferred a rope-a-dope strategy, neither candidate was wholly successful.”
Rope-a-dope was the name that Muhammad Ali, as clever with language as with the finer points of the sweet science, called his strategy in his famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire. (His press agent actually coined the term.) The champ faked passivity on the ropes, absorbing repeated punches on his arms and body, until the hard-hitting Foreman, finally punching air in frustration, grew weary. Ali then struck swiftly, going for a knockout.
There was no knockout in the final presidential debate. There was a lot of sparring in the clinches. You could see President Obama itching to draw his opponent into a slugfest, but the challenger played it safe, a thinking pugilist who expects to win by remaining cool.
Even when the president descended into condescension in their back-and-forth over the declining size of the Navy, Mitt Romney didn’t retaliate. When the president tried an uppercut in answer to Mr. Romney’s jab about the number of Navy ships, observing that America has fewer ships afloat than it did in 1916, the challenger stepped aside to let the president appear glib and merely slick with his own observation that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Mr. Romney didn’t counterpunch, and the next day the fact-checkers did it for him, reporting that the Army has 419,155 bayonets in its inventory, the Marines another 195,334 and has ordered 175,061 more this year, and horses, mules and even jackasses have been used in remote mountainous regions of Afghanistan.
Neither candidate looked like he was in a championship fight. Mr. Romney arrived with the momentum from his big win on points in the first debate. Mr. Obama, who made an adequate comeback in the second debate, held his own in the third, if only proving Woody Allen’s famous remark that “80 percent of success is showing up.”
He ultimately failed because he couldn’t make the crowd forget that Mr. Romney is no longer the candidate portrayed in $10 million worth of negative television advertising unleashed earlier in the campaign. Gone is the 97-pound weakling who needed muscle-building lessons to deal with bullies on the beach who were forever kicking sand in his face. He’s now the cautious fighter who knows when to raise his fists and when to hold his punches.
Mr. Romney telegraphed his safe strategy in the opening of the third debate when he didn’t try to send the president to the canvas for his changing stories about what he did and didn’t do in response to death and humiliation in Benghazi. Conservatives at ringside, who could see that the president’s jaw was made of thin and fragile glass, wanted the challenger to land the haymaker to take him down. But the challenger was playing to a larger crowd, including independent women who might be turned off by blood in the ring. The president’s story about who knew what and when about Benghazi continued to unravel as the week wore on.
The president’s snarky aggressiveness in the final debate was no doubt precipitated by the polls reflecting the Romney surge. The flurry of Obama left hooks, meant to reveal the challenger as a rich man out of touch with the common folk, no longer landed with damage.
“For the first time in this race,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told The New York Times, “I’d rather be us than them. They spent months building [Mr. Obama] up as one thing and in one night he disproved it.”
With less than a fortnight to go, nobody is on the ropes, and every fight fan knows the dangers lurking in the late rounds of any bout. My father, Bo Bregman, was a fight promoter, and I grew up on cautionary tales from ringside. Daddy had matched young Buddy Baer against Joe Louis on a warm night in May 1941 at Washington’s old Griffith Stadium. “The Brown Bomber,” as all the newspapers called Louis, was in his prime and everybody’s favorite. Only two minutes into the fight, Baer knocked Louis through the ropes.
Baer continued to punish the champ and the crowd of 35,000 smelled upset. Louis was hurt again in the fifth round, but early in the sixth, the champ caught Baer with a left to the jaw. With another right to the head, Baer went down. He couldn’t come out for the seventh round. In life and in the ring, as in presidential politics, you have to watch out for the final rounds.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.