Ask any college football coach his favorite thing about being invited to a bowl game, and you’ll generally get the same answer. Sure, it’s nice to visit Miami or Honolulu in January, and it’s always an honor to be selected to represent your conference on national television. But the best part of going bowling, he will say, is the opportunity to get in a few more weeks of practice. Coaches love practice. If they had their way, student athletes would be in training sessions all year long (fortunately for the kids, NCAA rules prevent this).
I bring this up in response to a very foolish thing that television pundits tend to say during election years. They argue that political parties should select their presidential nominees as quickly as possible, avoiding drawn-out, contentious, and bitter primary campaigns. Intra-party bickering in February, they insist, spells disaster in November. Winners are damaged, losers are bitter, and the opposing party gets plenty of negative material to use against the eventual nominee later in the year.
Actually, we’re already hearing this mantra in the wake of the Democrats’ rancorous South Carolina primary just over a week ago. The talking heads have been speculating breathlessly ever since about the rifts created by the nasty exchanges between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and especially about Bill Clinton's preemptive attempts to diminish Obama's victory in the Palmetto State. Will African Americans forgive Hillary if she is the eventual nominee? Have Bill's racially tinged comments threatened Obama's ability to appeal across ethnic and cultural lines in the general election? Isn’t this just the dirtiest campaign in the whole recorded history of human civilization?
Expect these arguments to intensify now that John McCain appears on the threshold of wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination. The recent GOP debate at the Reagan Library had its nasty moments, but they smelled more of desperation than authentic personal animus. Mitt Romney acted like the losing prizefighter in the late rounds of a championship bout, reduced to throwing wild haymakers in a last chance bid to land that one elusive knockout punch. As is usual in such cases, nothing landed. By this time next week, McCain should be free of any serious remaining competition.
At that point, of course, the talking heads will be unable to resist the contrast between the two parties. On the one hand, we will witness a GOP unity-fest, with nearly every significant Republican figure—perhaps even including Romney and Mike Huckabee—coalescing around their new champion. By contrast, the Democrats will continue their two-person battle, exploiting divisions and creating still more hard feelings. Worst yet, if either Clinton or Obama emerges from Super Tuesday with anything resembling a commanding lead, the tone might even change for the worse, with the underdog increasingly desperate to get back into the race. Then things could get truly negative.
Obviously, the talking heads will conclude, the Democrats are in deep trouble. While John McCain gradually builds a war chest and hones a more moderate message and platform, his opponents will be burning millions of dollars in an effort to defeat one another, unable to broaden their appeal beyond a liberal primary constituency. Over at MSNBC, Chris Matthews will begin to refer to the presumptive GOP nominee as President-Elect John McCain, while at Fox, former journalist Brit Hume will be unable to holster his trademark smirk any time he mentions the Democratic race.
Matthews and Hume may be clueless (may be?), but the football coaches will know better. They'll see Senator McCain restlessly stalking the weight room, running sprints, studying his playbook, but otherwise losing his edge, getting rusty. Meanwhile, Obama and Clinton will still be in their full pads, vigorously drilling on the practice field, perfecting each pass pattern and maybe even trying out a couple of gadget plays. The danger of injury lurks, of course, as it always does when players—even teammates—hit one another at full speed, but a good coach understands that the rewards invariably outweigh the risks.
I hate most sports analogies, by the way, particularly as they relate to politics. Elections are neither boxing matches nor football scrimmages. They are both more complicated and endlessly more important. Still, I think this particular metaphor works in this case. Forget the gridiron: practice is essential to good writers, auto mechanics, and brain surgeons, too. Nobody ever got better by sitting around waiting.
I don't know if last year's campaign debates remain available on YouTube. But if they do, I'd recommend taking a look at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the summer of 2007. The early Obama was tentative and uneasy, sometimes speaking haltingly and without confidence. For her part, Clinton frequently came across flat and lifeless, her few attempts at humor sounding stilted and false. Other candidates had been through all of this before, but these two had not. And it showed.
You may not have enjoyed the lovefest that was yesterday's two-person Democratic debate in Los Angeles, and neither did I, but you have to admit that Clinton and Obama exuded self-confidence and verbal mastery from beginning to end. Clinton truly has found her voice, and it is far more human than her detractors ever led us to expect. Obama's eloquence, once the sole province of his lectures and speeches, has finally transferred over to the debate format, and even his sound bites now carry power.
More important, the two Democratic frontrunners have increasingly mastered the art of going negative. Hillary Clinton has learned how to pull punches; Barack Obama has discovered how to throw them. (Yeah, another sports analogy; so sue me.) It now seems clear that Clinton will be able to attack John McCain without spiking her negatives. Similarly, we now know that Obama will not only fight back, but he'll do it in such a way that he never appears unpleasant.
If the Democratic contest ended today, the party's nominee would be well prepared to walk on stage with Senator McCain in October and, for the next ninety minutes, make his life just a little more difficult. But fortunately for Clinton and Obama, the race will not end today and will likely continue past next week. There will be more debates, more chances to get the message exactly right, to practice punching and counterpunching, to perfect the timing and delivery of those one-liners. John McCain should be so lucky.
Somewhere a coach is smiling.