Presidential Debates Without Tears: Politics Isn’t Beanbag

by Bob Schwartz


You can’t expect objective evaluations of the first Presidential debate from either campaign. Republicans want to talk hyperbolically about a victory. Democrats may have candid ideas, but few outside the inner circles will hear them.

The significance of any competition, besides the actual win or loss, is lessons learned. After that first debate, four explanations appear:

The President and his campaign were complacent.
They misread the situation.
They could not strategize or execute effectively.
It was just a bad night.

It was probably a little of all of these. Some will think that last one is just an excuse made by losers, but if you’ve watched competitions of all kinds, sports and otherwise, you’ve seen it. It’s circumstances, it’s the moment. It’s a quantum thing.

Nevertheless, that still leaves the other three as explanations and lessons.

The most significant Republican politician of the last days of the 20th century—yes, that would be Newt Gingrich—said straight out during the halcyon days of the primaries that Mitt Romney was a liar. Whether that was said with admiration or dismay is hard to know.

During that same campaign, Romney observed that “Politics isn’t beanbag.” Detractors then and now focused on the absurdity of this reference to an obscure children’s game. It was like his mentions of trees or the Keystone Cops. Who talks like that, they scoffed.

The focus was on the wrong point of the statement. Strange as Romney may appear to many people, one thing that isn’t strange, and shouldn’t be, is his ambition. Few if any politicians have ever played beanbag, or seen a beanbag match, if that’s what it’s called. But every politician knows about fighting hard, with or without rules.

If a banner saying “Politics isn’t beanbag” isn’t hanging from the wall of the Obama debate headquarters, it should be. Everything the campaign needs to know about Mitt Romney is captured in those three words.