Friday, October 17, 2008

The Four Factors of Winning Presidential Politics

Over the course of the past few months there has been a lot of commentary containing forced sports analogies that attempt to break down Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain's performances during the campaign. The comparisons are typically confined to the realm of football (Hail Marys), boxing (rope-a-dope, knock-out), and baseball (game winning hit, bottom of the 9th).

I have mentioned before that our political arena is becoming more and more sports-like so I am somewhat baffled by the omission of the most applicable sports analogy of all, at least in terms of this campaign: basketball, a sport that Mr. Obama plays on a near-daily basis. As a hoops junkie myself, I find the similarities between winning basketball and Mr. Obama's campaign to be quite remarkable and unmistakable.

For those of you with less than a passing understanding of the game, you may only know basketball as a sport that relies upon fantastic athleticism, amazing slam dunks, behind-the-back passes, and the NBA's over-the-top dog-and-pony show. While this sort of thing may move sneakers and get people to tune into ESPN, you may be surprised to find out that basketball is a free-flowing contest that provides a unique balance between individual performance and team-based proficiency; athleticism and IQ; pace and urgency; and so on and so forth. There is a good reason why it is likely the world's 2nd most popular sport. It truly is America's Beautiful Game.

Unlike boxing, winning basketball does not require a knock-out blow. Unlike football, winning basketball does not rely on single big plays. Except in very rare cases (Wilt and Shaq in their prime; possibly LeBron), raw physicality can be neutralized by competing factors such as b-ball IQ, solid fundamentals, and well-coordinated team play.

In his book Basketball on Paper, statistician Dean Oliver breaks down what makes for good and bad basketball:
After looking at a lot of teams over the years, I have come to realize that [the worst teams] are bad because they don't control four crucial aspects of a game:

1- Shooting percentage from the field
2- Getting offensive rebounds.
3- Committing turnovers.
4- Going to the foul line a lot and making the shots.

There really is nothing else in the game. These four responsibilities on the offensive side and these four responsibilities on the defensive side are it...If you aren't shooting from the field, you better be doing a few of the other three things. If you don't have the size to get defensive rebounds, you better force turnovers. If you can't take care of the ball very well, you better get shots up before you turn it over, then go after the boards. When NBC shows halftime stats and they say that New Jersey is "doing everything right" and beating the Lakers in field goal percentage and turnovers but losing on the scoreboard, you can guess that it's because the Nets are not going to the line very often or because they are getting beat on the boards.

-Oliver, pp 63-64
One of the most interesting aspects of the campaigns run against Mr. Obama by Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton is their focus on the "big play." By honing in on things like William Ayers, Reverend Wright, and the old war horse of raised taxes, McCain and Clinton thought that they could simply associate Obama with an idea or subject so rank that the American people would stop supporting him and the game would be over. Despite what our awful media may tell you, campaigns, like basketball games, aren't decided this way.

While John McCain was busy rallying his supporters with images of terrorists and ACORN, Mr. Obama was hard at work nailing down the Four Factors of Presidential Politics:

1- Being credible and trustworthy on national security
2- Being credible and trustworthy on domestic issues, especially the economy
3- Having a temperament suitable for the Oval Office
4- Having an intelligence suitable for the Oval Office

From the opening tip, Mr. Obama has run his campaign more like Greg Poppovich than Mohammad Ali. The other squad may have their runs and there will always be an ebb and flow to the contest, but ultimately, when the final buzzer sounds, his goal is simple: to win the majority of the four responsibilities that make up the game. He doesn't have the experience to compete with his opponent's resume so he spends his time convincing people that he is experienced enough with national security stances that are pragmatic and mainstream. He talks openly about raising taxes but with the intelligence to clearly walk people through the reasoning why such a step is needed. When GOP talking heads whine and moan about how John McCain should be winning because he is a war hero who opposes the Bush Administration on some key domestic issues, you can guess that Mr. Obama has convinced the majority of voters that his temperament and intelligence are superior to Mr. McCain's.

Perhaps the most effective part of the basketball analogy is what it says about the issues of race and pragmatism. Despite what you may read on right wing blogs or hear on GOP radio, Barack Obama is not winning because he's The One; an egotistical Messiah-like figure who has captivated a nation of mindless lemmings. Mr. Obama is winning because of hard work and campaign fundamentals. I'm sure there are cliched "little things" in every sport, but in basketball, you don't win the Four Factors without knowing how to set a good pick, box out, square your backside to the bucket on d, shuffle your feet, set up on offense in a 3 point stance, and so on and so forth. From ground game to peer-to-peer information sharing to TV ads, Mr. Obama is running one hell of a fundamentally-disciplined campaign. Each and every thing he does is geared towards a single goal: winning the Four Factors of Presidential Politics. On the other hand, Mr. McCain seems to be flailing about with no clear purpose but to hopefully land a blow that may or may not knock Obama out or to the ground. He has gone from calling his opponent inexperienced to asking if people know the "real" Barack Obama to appealing to the hypothetical business practices of made-up plumbers. Unfortunately for him, he's playing the wrong sport and 3 points is all you can make up on a single shot in the game of basketball. Plugging it into the political analogy, after 25+ debates and 2 years of solid campaigning, Bill Ayers, ACORN, and Joe the Plumber/Liar probably aren't even worth a single point. There are no knockouts in basketball, especially when you're down by 20 in the 4th.

Getting around to the issue of race, let me go back for a moment to the idea that Obama is The One. I feel pretty confident in saying that Michael Jordan is the greatest player in the history of basketball. In fact, there's really not even a close second. During his early years in the league, MJ was an athletic specimen. However, he didn't become the best player on the planet because he could jump high or because he was born with better athletic genes than other players in the league. Last year the T-Wolves featured a player named Gerald Green who is 6'7" with a vertical jump of 48 inches, which is absurd. He's quick and strong and the form on his jumper is something most ballers would die for. Yet, he is a terrible, terrible player. Jordan, on the other hand, worked his ass off, was extremely intelligent, and had a temperament suited to winning.

Minnesota's newest player, Kevin Love, is often described as something of an athletic oaf; a lumbering vertically-challenged white guy who makes up for his lack of hops with an extremely high basketball IQ and a "feel" for the game unmatched by his more athletically-gifted peers. Yet, during pre-draft combines, his athletic performance measured out as being remarkably similar to Al Horford, last year's runner up for Rookie of the Year who is generally viewed as being athletic and...well, black. This sort of thing happens a lot in basketball. From the playground to the NBA, there is a general perception that some people "play white" and others "play black". Unfortunately, this notion is often loosely translated to mean that white men can't jump while black guys are born with springs in their legs.

When I hear people criticize Mr. Obama as being "The One," or when they say that his support is because of who he is rather than what he stands for and how he goes about his business, the first thing I think of is how people are discounting his entire operation as "playing black"; that his appeal and strength come through innate qualities that he did not have to work for and refine--a political athleticism, if you will--rather than studying the fundamentals, being extremely intelligent, and possessing a championship temperament. Gerraldine Ferraro was the first person to be on the wrong side of this assumption and look where it got her. Bill Clinton tried his luck and not only is he now somewhere beyond the end of the bench, he's probably out of the arena. Ditto for Hillary. Hopefully, soon to be ditto for McCain.

It's a humbling thing to have your ass kicked on the basketball court. There are so many different things that go on during a game that you really are putting yourself on the line across the board. Your smarts, your work ethic, your temperament; it's all out there and you need to be fully aware of your weaknesses and strengths and how they help or prevent you from accomplishing the four things that will win you games. Do you have a mismatch or do you need to blend into the team and focus on defense and rebounding? If your defender sags away from you near the 3 point line, do you take advantage of the space for an open shot or a drive to the hoop?

In basketball, your opponent never beats you with a single play or because he's more athletic and can jump higher; he beats you because he accomplished a majority of the Four Factors of Winning Basketball. Barack Obama isn't kicking the crap out of John McCain because of who he is; he's doing so because...well, he got game.

BTW: one of the funnier aspects of basketball commentary is the near complete inability of announcers and half-time hosts to compare white players to black players and vice-versa. When Kevin Love was drafted, the talking heads on ESPN tossed out names like Brad Miller (white) and Brian Cardinal (white, also on the Wolves). Let me assure you: Kevin Love's game is nothing like either of these players. It goes the other way too. Getting around to the point of this final paragraph, and to really complete the analogy, you probably want to know what basketball player I view Mr. Obama as: John Stockton.

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