In the 1970s the two colossi of pugilism, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had three epic fights for the undisputed heavyweight crown. Their fighting styles and approaches could not have been more different from one another, ditto their lifestyles, politics and personalities. The contests, one of which was called "The Fight of the Century" and the last of which was "The Thrilla [sic.] in Manila" polarized Americans, often splitting families and even spouses from one another. Both fighters were the most talented of their generation and it seemed that far more than a boxing crown was at stake when they were in the ring.
On Wednesday night America saw the first of what will be three epic toe-to-toe battles held in a confined space and televised to the world. In one corner we had the incumbent president of the United States, an incredibly intelligent and gifted individual, an undefeated heavyweight political champion who vanquished such notable contenders as Hillary Clinton and John McCain with ease and aplomb. In the other corner, the former Governor of Massachusetts -- a man who amassed great wealth by virtue of his gifts in business and finance and rose to secure the Republican nomination for president by dint of his indefatigability in the face of a chorus of naysayers.
The clear underdog going into Wednesday night's match-up was Mitt Romney. Battered by pollsters, pundits and even by many in his own party and nearly given-up for dead, Romney's reputation was not as a "great communicator." What ensued was a desperate Romney furiously punching to get himself out of the corner if not off the mat. Like James J. Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man) Romney was literally fighting for his survival and like Braddock, he surprised everyone at ringside by repeatedly stinging the reigning champ and going the distance.
Romney was aided by a couple of factors -- first, it seemed as though a thoroughly bored and desultory Obama showed-up in Denver. This can't be the way the president plays one on one basketball at the White House gym. He was playing a zone defense when man-to-man coverage was in order. Second, debate moderator Jim Lehrer seems to be approaching his dotage. At times he seemed to be snoozing out on the porch and allowed a nearly unrestrained tit-for-tat type of debate, Romney was able to dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee. That Lehrer gave more talk time to Obama and kept trying to cut-off Romney later in the debate actually worked to Romney's advantage as it compelled Romney to be more forceful and concise.
In fairness to the president, the presidency is a tremendously exacting job no matter how well one does it and burnout in office is quite endemic. In the first half of the 19th Century, James K. Polk, (America's 11th president and also a Democrat) insisted on only serving one term owing to how thankless and stressful the job is. In fact, Polk, who up until that point was America's youngest person elected president, actually died just three months after leaving office. If Romney is elected, look for his hair to go mostly gray after a couple of years on the job.
Romney's key triumph in the first debate was his bursting forth as a GOP moderate. He actually took ownership of RomneyCare in Massachusetts and vigorously fought back against Obama's attempts to paint him as a Tea Partier. With Paul Ryan running to his right, Romney can now reclaim the center. Romney came across as forceful, relatable and empathetic. He also turned some Democratic jingoisms on their head, most notably his terming of Obamanomics as "trickle-down government." Romney's performance will reenergize many a listless GOP congressional and senatorial campaign across the country and ensure that the second and third debates will be both highly watched and highly important to the outcome of the election.
The first and subsequent debates show some of what's best about America. Here you had two superbly intelligent individuals on opposite sides of the political spectrum conducting a civil debate, free of invective and personal slurs. The sparring was all about policy and all verbal. The debate was on a very high level intellectually, almost to the point of being wonkish. That neither Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney dumbed it down was thoroughly refreshing. Adults speaking to adults about our very grown-up heavyweight challenges as a nation.
Next Thursday on the undercard, Congressman Ryan will go up against Vice President Joe Biden in what surely will be a highly entertaining and informative debate. There are two more presidential bouts slated between now and the end of the month. Look for a much tougher match in the next round, but whatever the outcome, the American people and our democracy are the undisputed winners because of the process.