Political IQ is Like “Overall Athleticism” and “Court Vision”

James Fallows, who’s one of the most consistently level headed and clear bloggers on current affairs, has a post up with two good yet different points. The first point is a worthwhile one about the role of “culture” in a country’s success.

The second point is about “political IQ”:

Political talent includes the ability to tell your immediate audience things it wants to hear — without offending people beyond that audience, who in today’s panopticon age will inevitably hear anything troublesome you say. At its crass extreme, this is the “dog whistle” — sending a coded signal that the general public will miss but only a select group of listeners will recognize and respond to. Less crassly, it is a skill both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton demonstrated in managing to appeal to some groups without alienating too many others. Barack Obama took such heat for his “people get bitter” comments four years ago because they violated this rule. For him it was a rare exception….

Here is the point I am building to. Three months before the election, it is fair to wonder about Mitt Romney’s basic skill level as a politician. I am not talking policy and substance, which I will do later. I’m talking about the counterpart to what coaches call “overall athleticism,” “court vision,” “ball sense,” even “football IQ.” In politics this includes an ability to read audiences, to self-edit and self-correct in real time, and to sense effortlessly how your words will sound to people on the other end. Right after Sarah Palin’s pick four years ago I guessed that she was going to have trouble with the surprisingly onerous demands of a national campaign. Now I am struck that we’re still seeing indications of limits on Romney’s “political IQ.”

“Court vision” and “ball sense” exist in a business context too, and I think it goes beyond polish. I’m reminded of my post a couple years ago on the “it” quality — the total package of qualities that so surpass simply “smart” that you’re left saying the person has the “it” factor.

4 comments on “Political IQ is Like “Overall Athleticism” and “Court Vision”
  • Couldn’t agree more. Mitt checks off all the tangibles (tall, handsome, intelligent, well-spoken) but lacks the intangibles. He’s the Republican John Kerry.

    This analysis also reminds me of a post I wrote 5 years ago about the importance of “feel for the game.”

    Feel for the game is emotional and intuitive; it’s automatic, and conscious strategy is no substitute.

    I make up for my own lack of basketball IQ by focusing on very simple heuristics (only stand in places where you’re comfortable shooting the ball; bully smaller, lighter players; rim run on any transition opportunity; cut straight to the basket after setting a pick) but that only gets me as far as being a valuable role player.

  • I wouldn’t expect the inimitable James Fallows to be as forthright as Paul Krugman and call Mitt Romney “a liar and a fool”, which he is, but Fallows’ article of 3 August, What Angelo Dundee Could Have Told Mitt Romney and Harry Reid had another sports/politics analogy from a commenter:

    “The most appropriate sports analogy here would be something in boxing called ‘ring generalship’. Doesn’t have anything to do with a boxer’s punching power, speed, defense, etc, but how he (and now she) commands the space in the ring; how he positions himself in relation to the other fighter to maximize his particular skills while diminishing the opponent’s assets. In a close fight it is actually a factor that can be incorporated into the scoring.”

    Sports/business analogies are not favored in our rude cockpit, and it is an article of faith there that no wise words have ever issued sincerely from the lips of Ayn Rand acolytes like Paul Ryan– no Galtian mot justes are allowed on the pirate ship.

    Yet it seems obvious that with the Ryan pick, Romney has failed to position himself effectively with a consistent and hard-hitting attack and now has to fight from a position of weakness. His campaign is not helped by his unconscious air of assumed entitlement and congenital privilege, an attitude that seeps into his very language.

    Romney wasn’t much of an athlete, but he was a cheerleader, ran cross-country track, and was a star of the Cranbrook involuntary haircut barbering team. He may have excelled in looting companies and plundering the public commons, but he is spectacularly inept as a politician. It seems likely he didn’t even bother to read Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which he misrepresented in support of his foreign policy, even making it a centerpiece of his remarks while on the world stage in Jerusalem. I hope his and the Republican party’s hubris will turn around and bite them in the ass come election time, hard.

    As Paul Krugman so eloquently put it: “The G.O.P. budget plan isn’t a good-faith effort to put America’s fiscal house in order; it’s voodoo economics, with an extra dose of fantasy, and a large helping of mean-spiritedness.”

    PS: Like the late Gore Vidal, I’ve always thought it peculiar that “those men who like to think of themselves as exclusively and triumphantly heterosexual are convinced that the most masculine of all activities is not tending to the sexual needs of women but watching other men play games.”

    Just had to say that.

  • Vince, there are few things I love more than a boxing-politics analogy. Thanks for the excellent link. Boxing is an amazing metaphor for so many things in life. I think that’s why three out of the four Best Picture-winning movies centered on athletes were boxing movies (On The Waterfront, Rocky, and Million Dollar Baby. The other was Chariots of Fire).

    Ring generalship is something that only sophisticated boxing watchers ever notice, but it shows its effects over the course of the fight. Pernell Whitaker, Floyd Mayweather Jr and the Klitschko brothers are probably the greatest ring generals we’ve gotten to see in our lifetimes. Ali’s bout against Foreman shows brilliant ring generalship – something Ali lacked in his first Frazier bout.

    I think it’s a brilliant political metaphor. Romney is like a physically gifted athlete who can identify and seize good openings in the short term, but over time will get outmaneuvered by a craftier fighter who keeps a consistent game plan and can think several steps ahead. Two fights that I think really represent that well are Jorge Arce vs. Michael Carbajal and Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Pernell Whitaker.

    The boxing analogy may not make a lot of sense to people who don’t follow the sport, but it has actually been very helpful for me in framing the larger narrative in this race. It’s great that someone else stated so well.

    Thanks again for the link.

  • My pleasure, Dave.

    I believe Obama will outmaneuver Romney as well– he and his team woke up and have been giving soulless Mitt in his holy underwear a good populist pounding. I expect they’ll drill in on the fairy-tale budgets.

    Thanks for your reply.

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