In boxing, it’s said that “styles make fights.” There was no better example of that truth than the three classic confrontations between the late Joe Frazier, who died in November, and Muhammad Ali, who today celebrates his 70th birthday.
Ali was the boxer, the stylist who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Frazier was the fighter, always in your face, ready to take a few punches if it meant getting a chance to deliver a vicious, paralyzing left hook to the body. In the ring, the contrast between their two styles brought out the best in both fighters.
However, the maxim that styles make fights is also true in reverse: Styles make mismatches. Frazier, for example, is considered one of the top 10 heavyweights in boxing history, and in 1971 he defeated Ali, who had proclaimed himself The Greatest. Yet three years later, when Frazier climbed into the ring against a young George Foreman, his willingness to take punches proved his undoing. Frazier’s style played directly into the hands of the larger, more powerful Foreman, and the man who had defeated Ali lost by a brutal technical knockout in just two rounds.
As if to drive the point home, Foreman’s own style was turned against him in 1974, when he met a cagier, more wily Ali in Zaire. The better fighter, in other words, doesn’t always win, just as the better football team or the better baseball team doesn’t always win. The outcome often depends on how well a competitor’s strength matches up against an opponent’s weakness, and vice versa.
Styles also make fights, or mismatches, in politics. In the 2012 general election, Barack Obama will be forced to defend his stewardship of the American economy during one of the most challenging recessions in the nation’s history. Other issues may surface from time to time, but the economy will be the central theme of the upcoming campaign.
The apparent GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, has argued throughout the primary season that his business experience makes him the perfect candidate to take on and defeat Obama. He believes that his style will match up well against Obama, and there’s reason to believe he’s right. After all, it is the GOP’s theory that the recession and the lingering after-effects can be blamed largely on the excesses of government, rather than the excesses of private enterprise, and who better to make that argument than a highly successful businessman?
Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve come to have serious doubts about Romney’s strategy. In fact, in this environment, given his preferred message, I don’t think Obama could have asked for a better opponent than a venture capitalist raised as a child of privilege who made hundreds of millions of dollars “right-sizing” American companies, who argues that “corporations are people” and who proposes to slash taxes still further on wealthier Americans.
In many ways, I have considerable respect for Romney, and I would not lose sleep knowing that he was in the Oval Office running things in a time of crisis, which is more than I could say of any of his GOP challengers. In another time frame, facing another set of issues, he might very well make a decent president.
But in this particular time frame, facing this particular set of issues, I suspect that the Democrats aren’t going to have much trouble turning Romney into the personification of their argument that unrestrained, unregulated greed is at the heart of our nation’s economic problems. They will turn his perceived strength into a fatal weakness.
– Jay Bookman