In baseball, a game without a clock, each player on a team that is behind by a bunch of runs is advised to "stay within yourself." That baseball lingo means: Do not try to do too much. Instead, get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in. There are no five-run home runs. Small, incremental gains matter because the game goes on until someone makes the 27th out. Until then, there is hope.
Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, presidential politics is, like football, a game with a clock, one with just five weeks of ticks remaining. In football, a team behind by lots of points late in the game must take gambles. Romney is behind — in the important swing states, with the national electorate regarding who would best handle the economy and health care, and in national measures of favorable voter perceptions.
So on Wednesday night it might be risky for Romney not to take risks. But what can he do? He might add to his menu of policies by embracing, say, the idea of breaking up the largest banks, a sound policy that would subvert the caricature of him as rapacious capitalism embodied. But debates are not good venues for explaining ... well, anything, actually, but especially not new initiatives. And October is a time for summations to the jury, not new submissions of evidence. Worse, Romney and his advisers must be bewildered by this fact: In October 2011, they would have been serenely confident of victory if they had been told that 12 months later the following would be true.
That President Obama would be waist deep in muddy and contradictory descriptions and explanations of the terrorist (he now concedes) attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya. That data just released for August 2012 showed that real disposable income had again declined. That Obama would actually celebrate the fact that for the first month since he took office there were more U.S. jobs than when he took office. That the most recent figures show a 13.2 percent decline in durable goods orders. That nearly 25 percent — the highest in three decades — of Americans between 25 and 55 are unemployed. That the second-quarter growth rate was adjusted down from an anemic 1.7 percent to the stall speed of 1.3 percent.
And regarding the Investor in Chief, that his Tesla Motors would be troubled. The California firm has received a $465 million loan from the world's most incompetent venture capital fund, the U.S. Department of Energy — source of Solyndra's $535 million — to make electric cars for the affluent. The Model S, unlike Tesla's $109,000 Roadster, is supposed to sell for between $50,000 and $98,000 — after the $7,500 federal tax credit. But Tesla has just received a waiver on the terms of its DOE loan. Tesla joins California-based Fisker, another floundering would-be maker of high-end rides for rich people, which has received a $529 million DOE loan.
Obama's administration is in shambles, yet he is prospering politically. This may not, however, entirely be evidence of the irrationality of the electorate. Something more benign may be at work.
A significant date in the nation's civil rights progress involved an African-American baseball player named Robinson, but not Jackie. The date was Oct. 3, 1974, when Frank Robinson, one the greatest players in history, was hired by the Cleveland Indians as the major leagues' first black manager. But an even more important milestone of progress occurred June 19, 1977, when the Indians fired him. That was colorblind equality.
Managers get fired all the time. The fact that the Indians felt free to fire Robinson — who went on to have a distinguished career managing four other teams — showed that another racial barrier had fallen: Henceforth, African-Americans, too, could enjoy the God-given right to be scapegoats for impatient team owners or incompetent team executives.
Perhaps a pleasant paradox defines this political season: That Obama is African-American may be important, but in a way quite unlike that darkly suggested by, for example, MSNBC's excitable boys and girls who, with their (at most) one-track minds and exquisitely sensitive olfactory receptors, sniff racism in any criticism of their pin-up. Instead, the nation, which is generally reluctant to declare a president a failure — thereby admitting that it made a mistake choosing him — seems especially reluctant not to give up on the first African-American president. If so, the 2012 election speaks well of the nation's heart, if not its head.
George Will is a syndicated columnist in Washington, D.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.