If you spent more than seven minutes reading Web sites during the Democratic presidential primaries, you probably encountered at least seven different sports analogies for Hillary Clinton’s fourth-and-long, bottom-of-the-ninth campaign. The senator herself cranked up the Bill Conti theme and invoked Rocky while in Pennsylvania (ultimately fitting, given that the Italian Stallion lost his first shot at the title). Then, just a few days before the Kentucky Derby, she held up doomed filly Eight Belles as a source of inspiration (oops). I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t hear her reference Friday Night Lights during the Texas vote: Not-to-be-believed, as-time-expires touchdowns are how the Dillon Panthers roll (plus, Bill Clinton is no one if not Buddy Garrity).
But I’d have to say that the game-winning goal came off a header from the New Republic blog, the Plank, which reported on June 3—the day Barack Obama clinched his playoff berth—that the defeated Detroit Pistons were refusing to “drop out” of the NBA Eastern Conference finals. “Some in the media are declaring the series over because the Boston Celtics have won four of the six games played so far,” wrote Christopher Orr, mock-quoting Detroit general manager Joe Dumars. “But it’s hard to imagine a more arbitrary and undemocratic way to determine this series’ outcome than ‘games won.’ ” Actually, it’s not hard to imagine that at all. Electoral politics’ morass of primaries versus caucuses and winner-take-all versus apportioned delegates has nothing on the BCS. I mean, quit whining about strength of schedule and just win your games!
To say that politics is like a sport is nothing new, of course. Way back in 366 BC, during the first election for plebeian consul, Roman herald Gaius Matthews Christophus was often criticized for his excessive coverage of “the chariot race.” These days, cable television’s leading liberal commentator is MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, a graduate of SportsCenter. And “partisan” is but another word for “fan.” There’s no difference between a Bill Clinton-loving Democrat after Monica and a Barry Bonds-adoring Giants season ticket holder after BALCO. People love their team no matter who wears the uniform.
But it’s always seemed to me that if you’re not a party loyalist or a single-issue voter, your choice for president comes down to arbitrary factors: charm, pork rinds, a “secret” Muslim background, the Colbert Bump. So sports is as good a tool as any to make sense of this heavyweight bout between Obama, the Oregon State basketball coach’s brother-in-law, and John McCain, the former Navy boxer. Which of these men will succeed the former Texas Rangers exec in the White House?
Experience When Obama’s short time in the U.S. Senate first became an issue, I thought about the baseball e-mail Listserv I belong to, where posters dismissively refer to “major league experience” as “MLE.” For example, “There have got to be six people in the minors who could pitch as well as Shawn Chacon or Jason Jennings, but GMs can’t resist a guy with MLE.” This institutional bias has been partially eroded by the Moneyball approach, which puts a higher premium on cost-effective youth and minor league performance.
But only partially. McCain’s five years as a POW in Vietnam gives new meaning to the locker room cliché “He’s been there before.” He’s the one you trust to come through in the clutch (even if you think the concept of “clutch hitters” is a comforting delusion based on anecdotal evidence). And if being years past traditional retirement age makes McCain like Jeff Bagwell, whom the Houston Astros should have pastured sooner, Obama could flame out like Richard Hidalgo. Advantage: McCain.
The Halftime Speech I’m of the school that says they’re overrated—communication on the field and in the locker room is more along the lines of “Throw strikes!” than “Win one for the Gipper!” The manager who huffs and puffs is mostly throwing red meat to the fans. But when it comes to being president, a little red meat for the people—making them feel as if the guy in charge is fired up—is definitely part of the job. Obama is a better formal speaker than McCain, my friends, but both men have that certain force of personality. Advantage: Push.
Management Style Conventional wisdom says you follow up a drill sergeant with a player’s coach, and while 43 is nowhere near as scary as, say, Bill Parcells, he’s clearly been a “my way or the highway” guy. At least as far as foreign policy, McCain is right there with him. Advantage: Obama.
The Underdog Factor You thought Obama was a long shot? Not compared with former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack—and that’s just about where McCain was before Christmas. Then Rudy Giuliani flopped worse than the Mets, Fred Thompson couldn’t win in Gamecocks country (someday he’ll play Phil Fulmer in a movie, though), and Mitt Romney . . . well, does the team from Utah ever win? Obama’s still a good fit as the unlikely champion, even with that huge advantage Geraldine “Jimmy the Greek” Ferraro talked about. But if you’re a sucker for a comeback, McCain is the new Frank Reich. Advantage: McCain.
The Intangibles Heart. Hustle. Hard work. The will to win. These are the traits we love in athletes, often more than flash and skill (if the University of Texas hadn’t won the national championship, Vince Young would only be about as popular as Major Applewhite).
But the kind of “heart” it takes to train, focus, and compete at the level of a major leaguer borders on pathological. One man’s will to win is another man’s “do anything it takes to win.” In this, we hold sports to a higher standard. James Carville and Karl Rove are guys who do their jobs. Bill Belichick and Roger Clemens are (alleged) “cheaters.”
The Republicans have recently played the game better than the Democrats. But Obama has shown himself to be a Roveian strategist. At the end of the day he didn’t win the nomination on the strength of change and hope. He won because of how he worked the caucus system, where a single and a double was as good as a home run. And, if he can dump his church and opt out of public financing (making him the New York Yankees in the race, a role usually reserved for the R’s), he understands the most important part of sports, even if that’s also politics as usual: It’s not how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose. Advantage: Obama.