Rope-A-Dope in the Briar Patch with the Tar Baby:
Presidential Debate Analysis Redux
Honestly, I’ve tried. I did the dishes and a load of wash. I took out the trash. I read a book (Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, which is fascinating but not as compelling [to me] as Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose). I tuned the television to crime drama reruns.
But after my sister called mid-afternoon, still apoplectic about last night’s presidential debate, I could resist no longer. I switched from an old (and previously watched, more than once) Law & Order to cable news, MSNBC-style.
It appears as if the left-wing-liberal-biased elite media (my viewing option of choice) is slowly recovering from its shock over President Obama’s tepid, at best, debate performance. The spin seems to be whirling toward fact-checking and hypocrisy-unveiling. Plus cameo performances by the future 47%-er, Big Bird. Plus helpfully outrageous sound bites from Romney surrogate John Sununu, who characterized Obama as a lazy pizza delivery boy (Step-and-Fetchit gets hired by Domino’s).
What hasn’t been discussed as much (in the approximately three hours I’ve reconnected to the political media universe, center-to-left version . . . sorry, but I will develop an ulcer if I have to monitor Fox News in the interest of ‘fairness’) is why the President offered himself up as a haggard sacrificial lamb to a mendacious butcher-of-truth.
Actually, my sister and I discussed this. Why was Barack Obama so . . . distracted and sad? Has he contracted a serious illness? Has someone in his immediate family contracted a serious illness? Is there something globally portentous going on that we don’t yet know about, like Israel planning to bomb Iran tomorrow or a failed take-out of the terrorists who assassinated the U.S. Ambassador to Libya or Vladimir Putin (he of awesome sports achievements and superhero exploits) challenging our President to an Ultimate Fighting cage match?
Maybe. Tempus edax rerum. But until then, the pro-Obama story seems to be that the debate non-performance was part of a deliberate strategy. Don’t come across as ‘an angry Black man,’ don’t be condescending, don’t be aggressive in a way that could alienate the mystical 2% of the electorate that trumpets its indecisiveness. Kind of a prevent-defense game plan.
The prevent-defense comparison started me thinking. President Obama plays basketball, so he certainly should know that dicking around with the ball at the end of the game rarely works well. The team loses synchronicity and momentum, allowing the rival to sneak back into contention.
Another sports analogy occurred to me, one that might be more accurate in accounting for last night’s debate. Rope-A-Dope: Muhammed Ali’s famous strategy to defeat the younger and more powerful George Foreman in the 1974 heavyweight championship fight held in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Basically, Ali retreated to the ropes for seven rounds, allowing Foreman to wale away at will. By the eighth round, Foreman was exhausted and Ali unleashed a furious combination that sent his opponent to the canvas. Ali won “The Rumble in the Jungle” by playing possum, conserving his energy, then attacking when Foreman was all punched out.
Is this the real strategy behind President Obama’s passiveness last night? One might think so after watching clips from his highly energetic and wonderfully scathing attacks on his opponent today, in a campaign rally in Wisconsin. It’s as if the cruddy debate generated a vulnerable zombie army of falsehoods (including false Romneys). But the debate was seen by almost 60 million people, and any single rally is seen in toto by thousands and seen in snippets by a million or so. As Bill Clinton would remind us, the arithmetic just doesn’t add up.
Let’s get more psy-opsy about this. ‘Energy,’ when we’re talking about politics as opposed to boxing, refers to mental and emotional resources rather than to physical resources (particularly when ‘physical resources’ can be parsed as ‘money,’ which the Romney campaign is not in imminent danger of depleting). So could the mental game plan have been to pump up Governor Romney’s ego by giving him an easy standing-eight-count debate ‘win’? To be so silent about the massive fibs underlying the putative triumph that the media would jump into the breach, correcting the record and casting the ‘victory’ in doubt, rather like NFL fans did regarding the absolute incompetence of the Replacement Refs? To make the Republican candidate think that President Obama is the Chuck Wepner of this campaign season, a laughable palooka-of the week? To make Mitt Romney over-confident and thus more likely to step into a self-secreted steaming pile during the next debate (or sooner)?
It’s a dicey strategy. A boxing match lasts an hour or so; then it’s over. The U.S. Presidential Campaign has more than a month to go, so the effects of even a successful strategic move can dissipate quickly, or be eclipsed by off-the-script events. Yet one could argue that the Obama presidency has often been an exercise in rope-a-dopery, such as luring Republicans into making the first and very unpopular move regarding the 2011 budget. Remember, though, that rope-a-doping Muhammed Ali won the bout, as did Manny Pacquiao, who also used the rope-a-dope maneuver successfully.
Maybe we should change fields of analogy. What comes to mind immediately is Br’er Rabbit and the briar patch and the tar baby, mediated folkloristic previews of the rope-a-dope strategy. Although Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus stories, was white, his tales were rooted in authentic 19th-century African American tales – tales that signified on the experience of being enslaved and disempowered, that explored ways to defeat oppression through trickery anchored in the oppressor’s own dreams of indisputable potency.
One could even go all nutso-exegetical, and posit that Obama’s uncharacteristic chin-tucking, stature-shrinking posture was orchestrated deliberately to make him look small and unthreatening in comparison to the stage-dominating Romney. That the performance was orchestrated to entangle the former Governor in unfortunately sticky substances and/or to get him to chuck the present President into a thorny thicket from which he could escape easily. That there’s a never-ending Manichean conflict: Br’er Rabbit vs. Br’er Bear (tar-baby) and/or Br’er Fox (briar patch). Uptroddation vs. Downpression. Or that hundred-plus-year-old stories illustrate not only that times’ racial dynamics but also less time-bound economic dynamics. Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, power and insider stealthiness, vs. Br’er Rabbit, against-all-oddish agent of resistance, armed only with intelligence, wit, and patience.
The sought-for outcome, in Harris’s now-mind-numbng attempt at dialect transcription of the Briar Patch tale:
Co'se Brer Fox wnater hurt Brer Rabbit bad ez he kin, so he cotch 'im by de behime legs en slung 'im right in de middle er de brierpatch. dar wuz a considerbul flutter whar Brer Rabbit struck de bushes, en Brer Fox sorter hang 'roun' fer ter see w'at wuz gwinter happen. Bimeby he hear somebody call im, en way up de hill he see Brer Rabbit settin' crosslegged on a chinkapin log koamin' de pitch outen his har wid a chip. Den Brer Fox know dat he bin swop off mighty bad.
Maybe someone was thinking along these lines. Or maybe not. (After all, President Obama is neither a boxer nor an African American who fits the usual U.S. conception of such a category.) Nonetheless, I’d like to believe that there was a deliberate rope-a-dope-briar-patch strategy, if only because this would have been a circuitously understandable plan, and a deviously clever one, even if it doesn’t work. The alternative is that the previously highly regarded Obama team adopted either a proven-to-fail strategy (the prevent-defense) or . . . no strategy at all.
[Note: as I was cruising the internet for rope-a-dope images, I found (to my dismay) that a couple other articles (Huffington Post and Daily Kos, for example, had been written using this analogy. I shouldn't have been surprised, as it's not a stretch, but even so I want to assert that I'd read or heard nothing vis-a-vis the debate beibg an Obama rope-a-dope strategy in (non-) action before I wrote this blog. I think my perspective is somewhat different. And so far, there are no competitive briar patches.]