At NBC, to say we have Olympics fever is an understatement. For a few short weeks every four years, the Games overtake the presidential campaign as the more compelling news event. But competing in the Olympics and running for the White House have some things in common: Years of training can culminate in the ultimate prize. And bad luck or one wrong move can torpedo a player’s dreams. In keeping with the Olympic spirit, we decided to put the presidential candidates through a virtual competition that mirrors the one they’re currently in. Let’s use a sport that’s popular and one that, if President Obama and Mitt Romney actually tried it, would surely entertain audiences more than your typical stump speech: women’s gymnastics. Let the games begin!
As you might expect, in years past Democratic candidates have struggled on the balance beam by consistently falling to the left; Republican contenders, particularly during the preliminary rounds (in politics, we call them the primaries), have a tendency to lose their equilibrium and fall to the right. Obama won the gold medal in the 2008 all-around competition partly because of his prowess on the beam: He promised to bring American politics back into balance by ushering in an era of post-partisanship, which the judges went gaga over. But he’s been shakier on the beam since then.
While Obama’s base has given him more leeway to lean away from the left side when he has needed to in the past four years (see the debt-ceiling fight), he almost lost his balance over a same-sex marriage spin that was added late to his routine. Obama was a bit wobbly on that move, but after teammate Vice President Biden added it to his repertoire, the president had to learn it as well to stay competitive. He ultimately kept his balance and doesn’t seem to have lost too many deductions from the judges.
This event has been much trickier for Romney. He barely qualified for the bronze in the all-around back in 2008, eventually losing because he couldn’t prove to conservatives that he wouldn’t lose his balance and stray to the left. This year, while he never fell off the beam during the prelims, he looked shaky a few times, especially when the debate turned to health care.
Looking toward the finals of this competition, the ultimate test for both men is proving that they can strike the balance of satisfying their bases while appealing to the political center. The president clearly is more comfortable in this event, but he has a lot of balance beam failures since 2008 to answer for. Romney still looks tentative, though, as his base doesn’t seem to be quite willing to cut him some slack.
The point of the floor exercise is twofold: First, to prove that you can do a certain number of moves. Second, to show some artistic ability to set yourself apart. The most comparable event on the campaign trail is the stump speech. Obama had a spectacular debut in this event on the floor of the 2004 Democratic convention. It was a star turn similar to that of Gabby Douglas, whose performance on the Olympic stage has captivated the fans and judges in London. It’s fitting that, when Obama called the women’s gymnastics team on Wednesday to congratulate them on their team gold medal, he reportedly said to Douglas: “You just tore it up. I know how hard you worked to get there.”
Team Obama clearly believes that the floor exercise is its strong suit. Whenever the president finds himself in a tricky position, he always returns to his verbal gymnastics. His ability to win or lose relies more on this event than any other.
For Romney, however, this is his weakest event. He doesn’t pretend that a stump speech or two can solve his political problems. He has the technical skill: He can nail the somersaults on policy to appease the press and the backflips necessary to appease his base. But the artistry is lacking. Look no further than that PowerPoint-style presentation in May 2011 defending his health-care plan in Massachusetts and making the case that it was different than Obama’s health-care law. He hit all the right points, or required elements, but in a very uncreative way.
And as we saw with his recent gaffe on London’s Olympics preparations, Romney has been known to stumble in this event, even in extremely low-level, relaxed meets. Not a good sign heading into November’s all-around competition.
For our purposes, the vault demonstrates the competitors’ ability to spring ahead of their political opponents. Though they are the last two standing, neither one has been very elegant in his routines.
Obama has had exactly one tough campaign in his political career, and that was his 2008 Democratic primary fight against Hillary Rodham Clinton (now a trusted teammate). Every other race came easier than it should have. From the 2008 general election against John McCain to his 2004 Senate race and even his first campaign for the Illinois legislature, Obama has succeeded on vault not necessarily because of his skill but mainly because his opponents have failed to stick their landings.
Romney hasn’t exactly vaulted past many impressive opponents, either. To clinch the nomination, he defeated the weakest and perhaps most crowded Republican presidential field in the modern era. In 2008, when he faced a field of heavyweights, he came up short, even though he had the most money (or, in gymnastics parlance, the best coaches). But he has risen to the occasion in front of some tough judges: Democratic-leaning Massachusetts voters.
The only thing that is clear in this event is that the candidate who vaults ahead of the other will do it in a pretty ugly fashion. It won’t be close to McKayla Maroney’s near-perfect performance this past week.
This event tests how the candidates respond to the unexpected, which is the best preparation for the presidency. Remember, 90 percent of what a presidential candidate runs on is not what he ends up dealing with in office — making the campaign an uneven bar for judging a would-be chief executive. If there is one thing that Team Obama and Team Romney have in common, it is that even their friendliest critics think they are often too slow to react.
Because Obama stuck to his old routine in the health-care fight and didn’t alter his strategy, he scored low on the uneven bars back in the 2009 and 2010 championships. And while he has shown some improvement on this front, after his team’s 2010 shellacking he struggled to stick the landing during the debt-ceiling standoff. And now he faces what could be his most difficult challenge: the Bush-tax-cut fiscal-cliff fandango set to begin after the election.
Romney is getting low scores from his own judges for his slow reaction to the president’s attacks on his wealth and biography. He has forgotten parts of his standard routine as he’s responded to requests that he release more of his tax returns. For instance, about a week ago, he inadvertently made public that he’d been subject to an IRS audit. That was the type of unforced error that Jordyn Wieber became all too familiar with this past week. Romney cannot afford too many more mistakes as he responds to campaign attacks.
We are stealing this event from men’s gymnastics, because the word “pommel” and the phrase “pummeling your opponent” are just too close to ignore. So far, both competitors have been strong in this exercise. Pummeling opponents is how Romney secured the Republican nomination. Just ask Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — and even John McCain.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign ran more negative ads than McCain’s, but he was so good at pummeling his opponent back then, much of the public didn’t even notice it was happening. This time, the judges are paying more attention to the fact that the president is waging a negative campaign — but the Republicans aren’t practicing positive politics, either. It appears that these two candidates are going to fight this event to a draw.
Judging gymnastics has gotten more complicated over the years, with a perfect 10 no longer the top score. The gymnastics of American politics is no less complex. You can win the popular vote and somehow still lose the gold; just ask Al Gore. In gymnastics, the contestants’ fates are in the hands of unknown judges who come from places such as Lithuania, Indonesia and France. In the world of presidential gymnastics, Obama and Romney are ceding control of their fate to unknown people who come from places such as Roanoke; Columbus, Ohio; and Longwood, Fla. Of course, unlike in the Olympics, there’s just one medal worth having — the presidential oath of office — and the winner receives it on a fairly large podium every four years on a cold day in front of the U.S. Capitol.
If you were to look at this contest merely through the prism of individual events, Obama would appear to have the edge against Romney. But past wins mean little heading into the next competition. Those Longwood judges put more emphasis on all-around performance than particular scores, and the president has a lot of economic deductions to deal with. Which is exactly why Romney also has a good chance to win gold.
Chuck Todd is chief White House correspondent and political director for NBC News and the host of “The Daily Rundown” on MSNBC. He hopes you are glad he chose gymnastics as his Olympic metaphor rather than the more predictable and stale decathlon.