Photo courtesy of Zimbio.
Photo courtesy of Zimbio.
Mitt Romney is to politics as Jeremy Lin is to basketball.
No, I'm not buying it either. More to the point, it's difficult to tell what this even means, let alone why President Obama chose this as his metaphor for his campaign's strategy against the Republican nominee this fall:
No matter what moves Mr. Romney made, the president said, he and his team were going to cut him off and block him at every turn. “We’re the Miami Heat, and he’s Jeremy Lin,” Mr. Obama said, according to the aide.
As politico-sports references go—and they don't necessarily go anyplace useful as a general rule—this one is a deep cut. In the February Knicks game that Obama cited, which occurred somewhere during the waning days of Linsanity, the Heat rolled out a high-pressure trap defense designed to keep Lin from even beginning to start his usual, and to that point virtually unstoppable, drive-and-dish game. In that regard, and maybe only in that regard, the we're-the-Heat-he's-the-upstart-shoot-first-point-guard metaphor makes some sense: the Obama campaign's defining tactic regarding Romney has been to close off all aspects of Romney's biography early, from his business career (layoffs! outsourcing!) to his time as governor (Romneycare! 47th in jobs creation!), in order to prevent him from effectively introducing himself on his own terms.
But if it makes sense on a tactical level, it's a puzzling choice in most every other way. As Kurt Helin notes, there's something weird about Obama singling out the beloved Lin as the Romney comparison and the NBA's least-loved dynasty-in-the-making as his own re-election team. Can this really be the comparison he wants to make?
This is not the first time that Obama has cast himself in the King James role, most famously at the 2004 Democratic convention. It fits, too: both are once-in-a-generation talents who have struggled with the weight of astronomic expectations throughout their respective inexorable but oddly fraught rises.
But 2004 was a long time ago: a long time before The Decision, and before America decided to elect Obama as its President. In 2012, there may not be a more apt comparison in the league than Lin and Obama. On a superficial level, there are their shared Harvard roots, a connection Obama himself proudly played up when he bragged in March that he was Linsane before Linsanity was cool. Romney's Crimson ties actually run even deeper, but he has clearly made a choice to sneer at his alma mater rather than remind voters of his two Harvard degrees.
But what made Lin such an irresistible story is also at the core of what made the idea of Obama so intoxicating. Like Obama's surprise emergence—a previously obscure state legislator and self-proclaimed "skinny kid with a funny name" who turned out to have a dazzling political talent—Lin came out of nowhere as an undrafted option of last resort for the injury-plagued Knicks. Both drew intense interest as much for their backgrounds as for their undeniable skill, and both blithely and relentlessly exploded stereotypes within their respective fields. With his attention, came grumbles among some in the old guard that each phenomenon was a passing novelty.
When the inevitable ugly flare-ups around their race popped up, each instinctively shunned confrontation while outwardly underplaying it. Obama cooled things down with a beer summit, Lin with a lunchtime rendezvous with a very embarrassed ESPN.com headline writer. Different things, of course, but Presidents and point guards have different jobs.
It's easy to look for NBA connections when the politician in question is also the country's basketball-aficionado-in-chief.The tougher task is finding a basketball analogue for Mitt Romney, whose tastes in 'sport' run more towards Olympics fare. To start with the obvious: any Romney parallel has to be a lottery pick. As the successful businessman/politician son of a successful businessman/politician father, nobody was sleeping on this guy in the draft.
One might be tempted to look at Romney's android-al personality and go the Tim Duncan route—the bland demeanor; the long line of quietly brutal successes; the coldly efficient game that has denied him the strong fan base his top rivals enjoy. You might look at Romney's famed political flexibility and see Lamar Odom, a player known to change his game depending on his team's needs. Or, looking at his flip-flops in a more negative light, he might be a frustrating combo guard like Tyreke Evans—brilliantly talented, but forever in-between, and prone to struggle at shifting roles.
To my mind, however, the most complete fit is Kobe Bryant. Both Romney and Bryant were highly touted prospects who learned their games from accomplished, hard-driving fathers. Like Romney, Kobe is a cultured high-achiever with a love for international sports and a talent for European languages; Romney speaks French, Kobe Italian. Both have a prickly side that makes them more likely to be respected than loved.
But the most importantly parallel is the way they operate professionally. One of basketball's foremost scholars of the game, Bryant's dedication to studying his idols does not spring from some abstract love of aesthetics: he does it to shore up his weaknesses, just as surely as his dedication to studying his opponents' game film is driven by his will to exploit theirs. And if there's one piece of Romney mysterious and protean core that voters can count on, it's his consultant's knack for cool-headed analysis; in practical terms this means that Romney, like Kobe, is driven to privately repair his own soft spots while endeavoring to exploit his opponent's most vulnerable areas.
Much easier than Romney to classify are the two men at the bottom of the ticket. Joe Biden is the classic aging ring chaser –which actually fits Obama's Miami Heat metaphor quite well. Paul Ryan is a perfect James Harden—a buzzed-about but mostly unproven young star playing a supporting role, and one that everyone expects to soon see running the show on his own. Of course, this is abstract, and politics isn't. In September, we're all free to parse Obama's choice of basketball metaphor. In November, what will matter is whether or not he was right, and whether he wins his election—whether he does it like the Heat snuffing out Linsanity or like Lin himself calmly lighting up defenses keyed specifically to stop him matters less than whether he does it, or doesn't.