Not all debate questions can be gems. Amid the implications of hypocrisy and nudges toward collective disagreement, sometimes moderators take a breather from actual probing. That’s when we see the softball questions rolled out, those calorie-free queries about the candidates’ wives or favorite foods or whatever. One instance came back in New Hampshire when George Stephanopoulos asked the suited nitwits on stage what they would be doing that night if they weren’t in a presidential debate—in other words, if they were actual normal people. Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney all agreed: they would be watching the college football national-championship game that Saturday night, with Romney adding with a dollop of flimsy smugness: “Afraid it’s football. I love it.” Which is all well and good except for one problem: college football’s championship game, played between Alabama and LSU, wasn’t until Monday night. That softball question? Call it a swing and a miss.
Only that gaggle of nincompoops could’ve screwed this up. It was an opportunity to say literally anything, anything at all, and have voters see them in a softer light. Still, even though the effort was butchered, the tack chosen was understandable. Basic sports talk is a short cut to common normalcy, an adhesive for relational gaps since forever: co-workers, a friend’s roommate, Ohio swing voters, whomever. In politics, it’s an easy bridge to cross, with the metaphors coming easy thanks to so many shared values between politics and sports. Politicos can borrow from a whole sack of lazy narratives—comebacks and chokes and extremist, no-retreat stubbornness—as well as the not untrue canard that only winning matters. And yet when it comes to discussing sports literally, the Republican presidential hopefuls seem to struggle. It’s somewhat unfair: Ron Paul may appear Middle Earth-old but in the ‘80s, he was a legit sportsman who hit the only true home run in the 50-year history of the annual Republicans vs. Democrats Congressional baseball game, which, yes, exists. And Santorum—whose fairly impressive batting practice cuts at LSU’s baseball stadium last week were videoed and posted online by the AP—recently thanked Puerto Rico-born second baseman Carlos Baerga for his endorsement by calling himself a longtime fan of the switch-hitting journeyman. Even if that’s a lie (c’mon—Carlos Baerga?) the fact that he said it with a straight face is impressive enough.
Then there’s the man who once literally carried the torch at the 2002 Winter Olympics. And yet, still, Romney does a remarkably lousy job selling himself as a sports nut. Joining a popular Alabama-based sports talk radio show recently, Mitt was asked about this year’s bitter finish for his hometown New England Patriots and replied with something quite close to human: “This last Super Bowl was a hard one to take. A catch in the final moments, which was a spectacular catch, dashed our hopes once again.” But for all this stiff, uncanny-valley speak, Romney’s bigger problem continues to be his penchant for falling into the oh-by-the-way-I’m-a-gazillionaire rabbit hole. In that same interview, the radio host asked Romney where he thought four-time MVP Peyton Manning should play next season. Mitt got the answer right—just keep him away from the Patriots’ rivals—but only after some needless, hoity-toity name-dropping: “I’ve got a lot of good friends, the owner of the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, both owners are friends of mine.” This 1-percenter braggadocio came weeks after Romney, simply asked if he watched auto racing, said he had friends who owned NASCAR teams. It might be unfair to focus on this seemingly pathological tic, given that Romney has long claimed his appeal was as a businessman, not a bar buddy. But to consistently attempt sports blather—which can be some of the easiest, dim-bulm conversations to have—only to hit the “out of touch” buzzer this hard is what makes Romney so special.
Of course, President Obama has his own wealthy buddies in the world of competitive sports. A few weeks back, Obama and the DNC hosted a fundraiser at the home of NBA star/injury-risk Vince Carter. Attendees included basketball legends past and present as well as league commissioner David Stern, a more reliable source of Democratic donations than the cast of “Ocean’s 11” multiple times over. But the President is an avid sports fan in his own right, a fact his people are getting pretty good at making clear. This month the pick-up basketball player-in-chief yet again filled out a public NCAA tournament bracket—and dominated those of us who don’t have to balance Sports Illustrated with crates of top-secret briefing memos. Last year, he finished in the 87th percentile in ESPN’s vast rankings. This year, through the Sweet 16 round, he sat pretty in the 98th percentile. Obama’s hoops love has also been useful diplomatically, with the President choosing to take British Prime Minister David Cameron to a basketball game (the PM’s first!) at the outset of March Madness. In the only joint interview the two heads of state gave during Cameron’s trip, they laughed during halftime about trading bracket advice for cricket lessons. And don’t think that his election arm is sitting idly by. Obama’s campaign invited all comers to play along with his bracket on their own website, complete with slick interface and (of course) a place to plug in a mailing address. In a nod to understanding what makes sports so inherently amusing, the campaign vowed to publish a list of everyone who did better than Obama for—as they put it—“bragging rights.”
Sports should always have this fratty, goofy vibe. But sometimes sports talk gets heavy because, America being America, there’s a lot of weird places for us to take it: football field-sized U.S. flags with war planes flying overhead before Gen. Petraeus flips the pre-game coin, and so on. And sometimes folks shoehorn politics in because they can’t help themselves. When drunk yokel-cum-“Are You Ready For Some Football?” caterwauler Hank Williams Jr. compared Obama to Hitler on Fox News, he was summarily fired. Mouth-breathing goobers all over were up in arms, and the president of Tea Party Nation called for a boycott of Monday Night Football in response. (The ratings, shockingly, saw no dip.) Then there’s the more highbrow conversations about human Rorschach tests like Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow, discussions about meritocracies and upward mobility that often emerge as people delight in seeing a fellow Ivy League graduate or young-earther leading the SportsCenter A-block. And even when sports introduce legitimate political division—Tebow’s anti-abortion Super Bowl ads; the Phoenix Suns wearing “Los Suns” uniforms in solidarity with Arizona’s Hispanic community; Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists—the fact that so many Americans get swept up speaks to the expansive power of sports chatter.
Truly, even as these PTI debates come and go, sports’ role as a foundational American lingua franca remains. Politicians who speak it get to bridge cultral and socioeconomic differences. And those that fail at it ring dissonant warning bells in voters’ minds. Many political obsessives point to Democratic Massachusettes Senate candiate Martha Coakley’s loss in 2010 to the twin dumbass crimes of belittling Fenway Park and labeling Curt Schilling a Yankees fan. President Obama, who often watched SportsCenter between campaign spots in 2008, is unlikely to ever make this kind of error. The critical truth is that he couldn’t get away with it either. Republicans have ensured that issues of normalcy will forever hound Obama, as his more mean-spirited right-wing opponents dickishly drumbeat a crypto-racist “other-ization” campaign against him that paints him as something less than American. Those who loathed Clinton and Bush largely described them as liars and numbskulls—in other words, politicians. With Obama, the insults are more insidious. His enemies have taken his biracial, Hawaiian-born political singularity and lathered it up with innuendo to try to separate him from the rest of us. This is why the ability to find common ground with sports offers Obama far more opportunity than it has any other politician in history. For most politicians, sports offers pleasant salt-of-the-earth conversation; for Obama, it’s uniquely necessary strategy to make up lost ground. That’s why we see him photographed in pick-up basketball games in his white Nikes and black dad-sweats: if he dresses like that, shooting hoops, who knows, maybe he’s not an evil weirdo alien after all.
During the halftime interview with Obama and Cameron, the president was asked about the game itself. And, perhaps because the contest was between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils, it was terrible, with only 42 points in the first half—and the President said as much, noting that both teams were “shooting terribly.” But in the second half, an odd moment occurred: Delta Devil Kevin Burwell made a legitimately tough shot, an off-balance three-pointer, right in front of President Obama. And perhaps aware of Obama’s earlier criticism, Burwell turned to the President and threw him a knowing look before heading back on defense, the first person to take those “bragging rights” the campaign had offered. But for that brief moment, there was no campaign—just two guys, savoring a circus shot, surrounded by the roaring crowd.