How Does a President Quit?
What does a politician, deeply involved in a campaign, do if he wants to quit?
That may be the issue Barack Obama is dealing with. A few months ago, everything looked rosy. The Republican Party nominated the man he wanted to run against. His popularity, though not as high as when first elected, pointed to an easy re-election. Then matters turned:
- The economy weakened.
- Ethical and judgmental issues began to surface.
- Foreign policy turned disastrous.
- Mitt Romney was not Caspar Milquetoast.
Politics is not croquet. It is a one-on-one contest. It can be brutal. People try to earn a living by beating up on other people.
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 three rounds.
Fans of both sides 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 they were by the collapse of Obama.
As I watched the first Romney-Obama debate, it reminded me of a boxing match that 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 whom 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 I watched the debate unfold. In terms of expectations, Romney was a serious underdog. He was up against a supposed formidable giant, self-described as our fourth-best president and smarter than all his advisers. The consensus of the media 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 halfway point. He was frustrated, defenseless, and beaten.
There are two more presidential debates. The pugilistic history of Clay (now Ali) and Liston might provide some guidance. Their second boxing match turned out worse for Liston. He was knocked out in the first round, felled by a "phantom punch," as seen in this video.
The second presidential debate will likely not be as decisive as the first. President Obama will not quit. But the parallel between the boxers and the debaters has value. Liston knew he was beaten in the first fight and quit. Liston likely came to the second fight for a payday, probably knowing he could not win. He knew that Ali was better. Obama, despite all his arrogance, probably realizes he cannot win against Romney. For a man accustomed to being in charge, that realization has to provide great discomfort.
The next debate with its town hall format may serve Obama better than the one-on-one of the first debate. Obama may be able to dance, but as Joe Louis observed, "he can run but he can't hide." Obama's problem is reality. Facts to Obama are like kryptonite to Superman -- lethal!
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.
When there is no more fire in the belly and you are outclassed in every respect by your opponent, what do you do? How does Obama have his "No más" moment gracefully? Or did we witness it already when he quit partway through the first debate?
Does the man who pretended to be president now pretend to be a candidate?