Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How Sports Changed the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 2

John McCain: Sport as War
One's understanding of a sport's significance often depends more on who is drawing lessons from it than on the sport itself. If a cynical liberal sees football as a mirror of the overspecialization and narrow focus that led America to its latest financial crisis, a conservative patriot may consider it a symbol of American individualism and efficiency.

It is not surprising that Barack Obama would view basketball as a sport that taught him about compromise and unity. When asked by ESPN's Chris Berman what lessons he learned from sports, Obama responded that his coach had taught him, "It's not about you, it's about the team," a maxim that coincides precisely with his life experience and political philosophy.

John McCain, when asked the same question responded this way: "I had a football coach. . . who was in Patton's tank corps. . . he taught me lessons about life." McCain continued, "I think the most important lesson he told me was 'You've always got to do the honorable thing, even when nobody is looking.'" McCain, who also boxed and wrestled, views sports as an extension of the military, where virtues like personal honor are central to success.

McCain adds that political campaigns are like football in that one must keep struggling forward: "You gotta just push and slog one game at a time. In football it's one Sunday at a time, in politics it's one primary and then one aspect of a campaign and one election after another. And you've gotta put one foot ahead of the other one and not get discouraged." While Obama lives in the ethereal world of basketball, transcending the muck that football players must slog through, rising--like Dr. J for a dunk--over the unseemly morass below, McCain is a warrior, "slogging" through difficulty, getting his hands dirty, and hitting the opposition one play at a time.

Palin's Sports Complex
McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, made sports a central narrative of her political identity. From the beginning she introduced herself as both an "average hockey mom" and as the "Barracuda"--a nickname earned when playing high-school basketball that points to her aggressive, predatory, even bellicose demeanor. Her experience as a sportscaster and her reputation as a moose hunter only reinforced this image. The McCain camp undoubtedly hoped that this basketball-playing moose hunter would earn the trust of voters who like their guns and who like the government to use theirs.

Conservatives were also drawn to Palin because of her reputation as a defender of small government. As mayor of Wasilla, Palin largely lived up to this conservative ideology by cutting taxes and reducing spending. There was, however, one glaring blemish on her conservative record: her spending on sports.

Wasilla records indicate that during Palin's tenure as mayor, in order to lower property taxes, she cut spending on the local museum by 16% and dismissed talks of enlarging the municipal library. Yet even with these cuts, Palin still managed to lengthen and redo the city's bike trails while at the same time encouraging Wasilla residents to vote in favor of a $14.7 million bond to build a multi-sports complex. To put this amount in context, city records indicate that in 2002, the year the bond was approved, the entire operating budget for the city was only $11.7 million.

Making sports central to her political identity proved successful in Alaska, but failed to resonate with the country as a whole, perhaps because Palin allowed sports to compromise political commitments to small government or because voters did not perceive enough political substance behind her sporting rhetoric.

More to come...

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