Suzanne Fields
Reporters and pundits writing about politics and particularly presidential debates can't resist the metaphors of the ring. And why should they? The metaphors work.

"The incumbent fought with a challenger's aggression, while the GOP nominee mostly avoided heated disagreement, except to make jabs on the economy," reported the Hill, the Capitol Hill political daily. "But if Obama looked to lay Romney out on the canvas and the Republican preferred a rope-a-dope strategy, neither candidate was wholly successful."

Rope-a-dope was the clever name that Muhammad Ali, as clever with language as with the finer points of the sweet science, called his strategy in his famous "rumble in the jungle" against George Foreman in Zaire in the 1974. (His press agent actually coined the term.) The champ faked passivity on the ropes, absorbing repeated punches on his arms and body, until the hard-hitting Foreman, finally punching air in frustration, grew weary. Ali then struck swiftly, going for a knockout.

But there was no knockout in the final presidential debate. There was a lot of sparring in the clinches. You could see the president itching to draw his opponent into a slugfest, but the challenger played it safe, a thinking pugilist who expects to win by remaining cool.

Even when the president descended into condescension in their back-and-forth over the declining size of the Navy, Romney didn't retaliate. When the president tried an uppercut in answer to Romney's jab about the number of Navy ships, observing that America has fewer ships afloat than it did in 1916, the challenger stepped aside to let the president appear glib and merely slick with his own observation that "we also have fewer horses and bayonets."

Romney didn't counterpunch, and the next day the fact-checkers did it for him, reporting that the Army has 419,155 bayonets in its inventory, the Marines another 195,334 and has ordered 175,061 more this year, and horses, mules and even jackasses have been used in remote mountainous regions of Afghanistan.

Neither candidate looked like he was in a championship fight. Romney arrived with the momentum from his big win on points in the first debate. President Obama, who made an adequate comeback in the second debate, held his own in the third, if only proving Woody Allen's famous remark that "80 percent of success is showing up." But he ultimately failed because he couldn't make the crowd forget that Mitt Romney is no longer the candidate portrayed in $10 million worth of negative television advertising unleashed earlier in the campaign.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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