Reading press accounts of the presidential debates, one can’t help noticing the profusion of pugilistic terminology:
‘Gloves are off…’ ‘Romney claims the first round…’ ‘Obama wins on points…’ ‘Romney draws first blood…’ ‘Obama came out swinging…’ ‘Romney lands the heavier punches…’ ‘Second round goes to Obama…’ ‘Neither man landed a knock-out punch…’ ‘Down but not out…’ ‘He beat his man to a punch…’
One reason for this verbal tendency must be the hacks’ general affection for clichés. Even those few of them who are capable of idiosyncratic self-expression seldom have enough time to look for the right word in the hectic conditions of political reportage. Clichés obviate the need to think for those who either can’t or have no time to do so, which is par for the course.
But why boxing clichés specifically? After all, the English language offers more chestnuts than you can find on a Paris pavement stall in autumn. Many of those, say those borrowed from card games, could do the job just as effectively. Yet we seldom see phrases like ‘Obama plays his trump card’, ‘Romney pulls out his ace in the hole’, ‘Foreign policy is Obama’s long suit,’ ‘Romney cashes in his chips,’ ‘Obama calls a spade a spade…’ Well, perhaps not this one. But there are many others to choose from.
These are admittedly less dynamic than the fighting ones, but then neither are they as graphic in evoking black eyes, smashed eyebrows, broken noses or ruptured spleens. Yet all one hears is boxing analogies in every blow-by-blow account of two heavy hitters refusing to pull their punches until one of them takes it on the chin and either goes down for the count or is saved by the bell.
I don’t mean to indulge in homespun psychoanalysis, but there has to be a deeper meaning there somewhere. Could it be an innate yet unwitting nostalgia for the dawn of history, when conflicts between two tribes would begin, and often end, with a mano-a-mano combat between the two chieftains? And could this subconscious yearning be reinforced by a very rational realisation that verbal sparring between two candidates is a grossly inadequate way of deciding which one would make the better president?
This is just speculation on my part, but perhaps staging real punch-ups is what both the pundits and the public are really craving. They just may realise that we’d learn more about a man’s suitability for leadership from his ability to throw and take a good left hook than from his knack at out-shouting people. True enough, a boxing bout says more about a man’s character than his intellect, but I for one would be reluctant to insist that, when it comes to leadership, the latter is more important than the former.
And wouldn’t women, to name one obvious group, be more likely to vote for a man with strong muscles than for one with strong vocal chords? Wouldn’t men more readily identify with a candidate who rolls with the punches on the ropes, rather than on a debating platform? I think we’re on to something here and, if this would mean redesigning the electoral process in most Western countries, then so much the better. You don’t really think that the present system unfailingly elevates to government those fit to govern, do you?
Thus, step by step, we’ve achieved a symbiosis of reason and intuition so beloved of scholastic philosophers. All that remains is converting it into a practical proposal, which in this instance is self-evident.
Western democracies should replace televised debates with Marquess of Queensberry bouts between the two aspiring candidates. This would offer marginally better chances of selecting the right man for the job than drawing names at random from a phone directory – and infinitely better ones than those afforded by the existing system.
Of course there are technical details to be ironed out, as there always are with any radical departure from the beaten track. But the task isn’t insurmountable.
First, the leading parties should have a statutory obligation to select candidates no further than one weight class apart, say welterweight to middleweight. You might object that even under such eminently fair conditions, the parties would be tempted to nominate only young men, and you’d be right. But all Western democracies are in any case moving that way – just look at some of our MPs, those barely old enough to vote for themselves.
Second, both the mandatory eight-count and the three-knockdown rule must be suspended. The fight should go on until one of the candidates is either knocked out or throws in the towel. We don’t want any namby-pamby let-offs: we need to find out what the contestants are really made of.
Third, stamina being as important for a leader as brawn, the fights must have no round breaks. The fights should go the distance until one of the candidates is out for the count.
In this world we aren’t blessed with perfection. Hence I don’t claim that the proposed system ought to be held up to such a lofty standard – only that it would be better than the existing travesty of an electoral process. I think it should get a unanimous decision.