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Roderick Spencer Headshot

March Madness, Primary Season and the Limits of Sports as Metaphor

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It's March. Days are lengthening, flowers are blooming, and one of our least corrupted sporting events, the NCAA Basketball Tournament(s) is happening at the same time as one of our most corrupted political events -- Primary Season.

I'm a sports fan and I care about politics, so let's mash them together.

It is likely that Barack Obama is the most knowledgeable U.S. president ever when it comes to NCAA basketball. How can the remaining GOP candidates use that against him? They probably can't. They are each so awkward and peculiar that I doubt any of them know the rules of basketball, let alone how to fill out a bracket. Newt Gingrich would want to rewrite the rules to allow for more 'innovation' and space travel. Ron Paul would want to eliminate all rules that don't protect property rights. Rick Santorum would try to somehow introduce shame and vomiting into the game. And Mitt Romney would have a lot of friends with luxury boxes, even for games they don't bother to attend.

But what a tournament! A 15th seed beats a 2 seed... TWICE!!! How is this happening? Is parity being achieved because of the increasing inequity in our economy? I doubt there's any statistical proof of correlation, but the fact is there's a lot of rich kid sons of former NBA players, who play for power schools like Missouri, Duke and Georgetown -- all of which got jumped by hungry 'nobodies' like Norfolk State, Ohio and South Florida. The rich get richer, but not necessarily better. Meanwhile good athletes with something to prove will find a place to play. It is a great time of year if you love an underdog.

Speaking of underdogs, in terms of available campaign cash -- including from the 'unaffiliated' Super PAC's -- Barack Obama could be called an underdog. Which begs the question: Whatever happened to "smart money"? Ideology aside, do the Koch Brothers and that nutty old guy with the casinos, really think that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich are better presidential material than Obama? Don't they want to back a winner? Can't they see that Obama, for whom pragmatism is ideology, is just better at the job? He was a better candidate, and stylistically, he's really good at being president. And speaking of sports, he's arguably the best athlete to occupy the White House.

Maybe there's a lesson here. If you can't make at least a free throw, you shouldn't get to be president. Santorum looks like he might be able to make a free throw. But for him, the combination of basketball and Obama at this time of year might lead to thoughts of college which is for socialist snobs, and then he might realize that without college maybe nobody would have come up with a repellent idea like separation of church and state, and then he'll get nauseous and not only won't he make a free throw, somebody's going to have to clean up after him.

One of the things I like about Obama is that he remains politically flexible, even in this era of hyper-partisanship. On the other hand, like recent charismatic presidents before him, he's willing to wander breathtakingly far from his avowed principles.

He signed an executive order making it okay for the U.S. military to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad, and another executive order allowing indefinite detention without trial of American citizens suspected of terrorism. Furthermore, his Attorney General, Eric Holder, has spent extraordinary amounts of energy and time prosecuting Americans who blow the whistle on wasteful, corrupt, and unconstitutional tactics in the 'War on Terror.' Perhaps Obama's rationale is, "We've been doing this stuff covertly for decades. I'm just making it legal." If so, it's particularly chilling evidence of a man's pragmatism trumping his ideology. Kind of like calling torture 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'

Yet, like Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan before him, Obama is a spellbinder, and despite the tawdriness of the game that got him to the White House, I believe he's a potentially great president.

Which brings me back to March Madness. The watchword of the tournament is, "Survive and advance.' And often, as in politics, the most devastating losses are the result of self-inflicted wounds. Like when Duke (Duke!) lost in the first round to Lehigh (Lehigh!?!) because they forgot that, to survive, they had to compete adamantly in every game. Kind of like the Massachusetts Democrats forgetting to put forward a credible candidate after Ted Kennedy passed on. Or like President Jimmy Carter deciding to tell America, during a recession, that the real problem was a crisis of confidence. It came to be known as the 'malaise' speech. Talk about tone-deaf. Not only did he confront us with our own shortcomings, he got us thinking in French!

George H.W. Bush's un-live-down-able screw-up was simply being himself in the wrong setting. There he was, an extremely wealthy WASP who probably hadn't shopped for his own groceries in forty years, honestly fascinated by a supermarket price scanner. He'd never seen one before! It was almost sweet. But the image was indelible. He could not advance past it.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan said trees cause pollution, signed off on Iran/Contra and fired all the air traffic controllers. But somehow he was able to remain both down to earth and above it all, even while raising our taxes. He kept that strangely detached folksiness even when his approval ratings were at 35 percent. I did not approve of much that he did in office, except for his style. He was graceful, courtly and unfailingly appropriate in the diplomatic sense of the word. Rather like our current president. Both of them, I predict, will be remembered as 'great,' even if their actual accomplishments don't warrant the word. Something about who they are will transcend the work they were elected to do. This is an area where the similarities between sports and politics break down. In sports, greatness is not a mystery.

Finally, I recommend the 17-minute Obama campaign movie. It is, of course, a slickly produced and rigorously selective highlight reel. For example, even if you play it backwards there's no mention of why Guantanamo is still in business. But the big accomplishments are all there, including two especially make or break decisions; One, to send Seal Team Six into that compound in Abbottabad, and the other (arguably even gutsier) hugely unpopular choice to bail out the auto industry. If either of those calls go sideways, Barack Obama is a one-term president for sure. But they were both really good calls. What the movie does best is remind the audience of what this president inherited, and (some of) what he did about it, including his impressively stern and sober inaugural address. On that terribly cold and sunny day he told us that the time for shallow partisanship was 'surely past', and then, as if he knew how wishful that statement was, he warned that things would get worse before they get better, and so they have.

Meanwhile, as I write, the Kentucky Wildcats are finishing off the over-matched Baylor Bears, on their way to the Final Four. They are bigger, stronger, faster and they don't make mistakes. They have survived. They will advance.

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