Years ago Muhammed Ali and George Foreman fought a historic boxing match in Zaire that came to be called the Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman was the world heavyweight champ – heavily favored because of his youth and strength – and Ali was… well, Ali was Ali. Against all expectations, Ali rope-a-doped, right-jabbed, and out-boxed Foreman all over the ring – finally knocking him out in the 8th round with a furious flurry of punches. (Foreman got up, but too late to beat the count of 10.) Ali regained the title.
Supporters of President Obama – especially in the Mainstream Media – expected a real Rumble in Denver at the October 3rd debate between the president and his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney. Bloody carnage – at least figuratively speaking – was widely anticipated, but not in the way that it turned out. Mr. Obama’s media acolytes thought their guy would tear the presumptuous, bumbling corporate-raider-destroyer-of-lives rich guy to ribbons in their first debate. But Mr. Obama did no such thing. Essentially, he failed to answer the bell. Not only did he not come out smokin’ (a la Joe Frazier). He didn’t come out at all. He never laid a glove on the Guv. If I were a gambling man, I’d say he looked like he was throwing the fight.
I say most of this with tongue in cheek, of course. No, Mr. Obama wasn’t throwing the fight. The more accurate assessment, I think, is that he declined to mix it up in the “arena of ideas” with his opponent. In fact, I don’t think he wanted to mix it up with anybody in a free-form debate where he didn’t have his teleprompter to feed him his lines. When those teleprompters are flanking him, Mr. Obama is so smooth in his delivery that he makes listeners believe those Olympian thoughts flow right out of his mind, and are conveyed directly to our ears by his mellifluous baritone. Of course, no such thing is occurring (except for the mellifluous baritone). All he has to be is a skilled reader and deliverer of lines. (The media always accused Ronald Reagan of being just a “dumb actor reading lines,” but he had no teleprompter.)
The debate format, where each participant springs off his opponent’s comments to make his own counter-arguments, requires command of a large body of material from memory and a quick wit that enables marshaling of facts and concepts quickly into a coherent line of argument. In boxing lingo, it requires the ability to counter-punch. Mr. Romney did a lot of this; Mr. Obama, very little. Instead, the president threw a series of wild haymakers in the hope of landing a punch that would knock Mr. Romney out of the match. His favorite punch was the accusation that Mr. Romney planned a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy that would be “paid for” by a $2,000 tax increase on the middle class. He threw it repeatedly, but Mr. Romney easily deflected each wild roundhouse until he seemed to grow bored with Mr. Obama's representations. “That’s not my plan,” he patiently explained, as though lecturing a rather slow student.
The boxing image it evoked was wonderfully like Ali holding his glove in the opponent’s face while asking him, “Is that all you got?” Unlike Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, however, Mr. Romney KO-ed Mr. Obama much before the 8th round. The president’s feeble haymakers sealed the issue early. (As De Niro would say, he had “nah-thing!”) It wasn’t that Mr. Obama didn’t speak – the clock showed that he spoke 4 minutes longer than Mr. Romney – it was that his answers obviously lacked substance and were all about class, Class, CLASS!
Mr. Romney also delivered a devastating counterpunch by pointing out that running the federal debt up to $20 trillion, as Mr. Obama planned to do in a second term, would saddle taxpayers with higher taxes just to pay interest that could run to $800 billion a year on that debt. He estimated the cost to taxpayers at $4,000 a year. The blow landed solidly, and Mr. Obama had no response. Mr. Romney also explained (several times) that lowering tax rates would expand business – thereby creating many new jobs and producing increased tax revenues.
This isn’t meant to be a blow-by-blow assessment of the match. Others have done that very effectively. My overall observation is that the younger Mr. Obama was clearly overmatched by the older Mr. Romney – much as the younger George Foreman was out-boxed by the older Muhammed Ali in their 1974 Rumble. To say this was a complete surprise both to Mr. Obama’s followers and to his Big Media cheerleaders is a classic understatement. Most have been reeling around for several days since the debate, trying to understand what happened to the floor-mopping their guy was supposed to do with the lightweight Mr. Romney.
In response, Obama apparatchiks have gone into in overdrive spin-mode, trying to suggest possible “causes” for Mr. Obama’s lackluster performance. Al Gore helpfully suggested an environmental reason, noting that Mr. Obama had not allowed sufficient time to adjust to the high altitude of Denver. (Mr. Obama had arrived in Denver only in the mid-afternoon of the debate day.) Mr. Gore also noted that if climate change is addressed seriously, Denver’s altitude might be lowered. (Just kidding!)
Others claimed that Mr. Obama was acting “presidential” by staying aloof and declining to brawl with Mr. Romney. One talk-jock articulated this latter spin by representing Mr. Obama’s likely train of thought:
‘Who does this guy think he is? Doesn’t he know I’m the president of the United States? I don’t even know why I’m up here with him. How much time until this is over?’
Another wag suggested a different line of Mr. Obama’s thinking:
‘Where is my #%^@$ teleprompter? I’m going to kick some serious butt at my next staff meeting!’
Senior Obama advisor David Axelrod introduced a more critical spin onto the post-debate analysis by accusing Mr. Romney of delivering an excellent “performance” that was totally disconnected from his previous positions and ideas. “We have no idea who that guy in the debate was,” he said.
When pressed repeatedly by an interviewer to say that Mr. Romney had “lied” in the debate, Mr. Axelrod would say only that their opponent was “less than honest” about his stance on various issues. But Mr. Axelrod gave no specifics; only generalities. Mr. Axelrod is the living embodiment of the old debate maxim: When the match goes against you, smear your opponent by claiming that he cheated or lied.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has hit the campaign trail again with renewed vigor – doing his best to spin and joke his way past his disastrous performance. Try to picture George Foreman doing this after getting whupped by Ali in the jungle – right, it doesn’t compute because Foreman was a tough guy and a quality fighter who knew how to come back. Although Foreman never fought a rematch with Ali, he did come out of retirement at age 45 to regain the heavyweight title by knocking out Michael Moorer. No one tried to “spin” Foreman’s loss in the jungle – least of all he, himself. He didn’t need it.
The Obama people are now in full cry, pumping their fists in the air and warning that next time will be “different.” Maybe. But how? Will they sneak Ritalin into Mr. Romney’s bowl of Wheaties? Or put a horseshoe in Mr. Obama’s boxing glove? The unmistakable truth that stood out in Denver was not that Mr. Obama lacked debate-skills, or that he was altitude-fatigued, or that he was bored with the whole deal, etc., etc. It was that the facts were against him. When the discussion turned to critical issues of domestic policy and the economy, Mr. Obama had nowhere to hide. No one could help him. He became the Denver Sphinx, not because he was tired or bored, but because trying to defend the indefensible would have made him look worse than he already did by saying little.
Mr. Romney said four more Obama years would look like the first four. What clever riposte could Mr. Obama make? ‘No, no, the same policies will produce different results – trust me!’? This is at least one working definition of insanity – i.e., expecting different results from the same actions. No, the jig was up. With Mr. Romney prepared, energized, forceful, and in command of the facts, Mr. Obama probably knew the match was lost before we did. He went the full 15 rounds, but there was no way, Jose.
But it wasn’t just Mr. Obama’s debate performance that melted down. Four years of the most futile, misguided presidency in our history also melted down in front of 70 million viewers. No doubt, Big Media are ramping up now to cast Mr. Obama as the Comeback Kid. (“The Kid is comin’ back! He’s in there punchin’! He’ll tear ‘im limb from limb!” etc.) But it ain’t gonna happen, folks. Even a rigged rematch won’t do it. The challenger is too strong, and the Kid has run out of punches. Not even Foreman could come back this time.