One of the reasons I love sports is that I can indulge my primal instinct for combat without feeling any guilt. I’m a huge Lakers fan, and I can easily spend hours poring through analyses of how the team will clobber the competition this year with the addition of two fearless warriors.
This thrill of competition will last all season — it is intense, strategic, unpredictable and utterly mindless.
Which is why I feel no guilt: Mindless means there are no stakes to speak of.
The Lakers can lose a big game, and it’ll make no difference to the conflict in the Middle East or to whether my kids get into a good school. Sure, if we win this year, I’ll celebrate like a wild man with my son, but little else will change.
Now, here’s the problem: What happens when this mindless thrill of competition starts to color how we view presidential campaigns, when the stakes are deadly serious?
This is precisely what I saw last week in the media’s reaction to the Obama-Romney debate. Instead of enlightened analyses about the candidates’ different visions for the country, we got “combat reports” that looked like they came right out of the sports pages:
Obama let him off the hook! He didn’t bring his A game! Romney was on fire! Romney won because he fought dirty! Obama didn’t fight back! He better wake up and take the gloves off next time!
It could have been an NBA championship series with the underdog stealing the first game. Once the debate was over, everybody took their fighting positions: Romney fans started gloating and smelling blood; Obama fans started moaning and calling for blood.
Squeezed between these rabid fans are the tiny sliver of “undecided” voters who represent about 5 percent of the total and who will presumably determine the future of America.
How sad, if you ask me.
How sad that 95 percent of American voters had already made up their minds about which candidate to support without ever seeing the candidates face one another in real time.
How sad that most media and political pundits reacted to the debate the way rabid sports fans do on talk radio — with an obsession for winning and losing.
Take a look at Chris Mathews of MSNBC in the hours after the debate and tell me if he was any less apoplectic than any diehard Lakers fan would be after a big loss.
The “losing” side whined incessantly that Romney won because he misrepresented himself as a moderate — never mind the inconvenient fact that as governor of Massachusetts, he really was a moderate. No, as they saw it, he won because he lied and had swagger. Obama lost because he looked weak and didn’t fight back. Case closed. Indicated action: Fight harder.
No wonder the battle cries went out for more “fact checking,” just like when coaches ask the referees to review a play. The man cheated! Don’t let him get away with it! He’s not really a moderate! He’s only promising the world so he can win more votes! How shocking!
As if candidate Obama never “promised the world” four years ago when he won.
As Yuval Levin put it: “A Republican candidate stands before 60 million voters and commits to an agenda and his opponent responds that this isn’t really his agenda, and that voters should instead look to Democratic attack ads and liberal think-tank papers to learn what the Republican is proposing. That’s the strategy?”
The point is, beyond all the attack ads and campaign strategies and partisan accusations, there’s a more important drama going on that we don’t hear enough about.
It’s the drama of two competing visions for the country.
Both candidates care about America’s future, but they have serious philosophical differences about how to address the nation’s chronic problems.
Those philosophical differences are real — they’re not lies.
Of course, even visions can be described in partisan terms. To cite one example, Washington Post right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin writes, “The Republicans call it a dependency society vs. an opportunity society. But it is really a face-off between modern conservatism and unrepentant liberalism.”
Romney himself describes the two visions as “Trickle down government vs. prosperity through freedom.”
President Obama has contrasted “the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess” with “a new economic patriotism” that champions the middle class and ensures that everyone gets a “fair shot” at the American dream.
Partisan slogans aside, there are genuine and honest differences between the two visions on virtually every issue. It’s tempting to assume we understand them all — but do we?
As crazy as it may sound to some, there are compelling arguments to make for both sides.
In this national sport, when the stakes are so high, the definition of victory is when we all try to find out what those arguments are.