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‘Like Déjà Vu All Over Again’: The History of Baseball Metaphors in American Politics, From Abraham Lincoln to Harry Reid

Barack Obama is the most sports-metaphor-mad president the country has ever known, but he’s by no means the first.

This spring, when Harry Reid announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate, he could have picked any number of rhetorical flourishes. He could have gone full statesman, à la George Washington. He could have shivved his old bête noire, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He could have again insisted, for the hell of it, that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for a decade. But Reid, as they say, threw a curveball.

“I want to be able to go out at the top of my game,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter.”

Reid had deployed a baseball metaphor. And a rare, bipartisan caucus decided the metaphor was … really good. “That’s about the most articulate thing I’ve ever heard from Harry Reid,” the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer told me recently.

“It’s not bad,” agreed George Will. “He should aspire to be Edgar Martinez.”

Two weeks ago, Reid sat in the minority leader’s office, with hands clasped and ankles crossed, talking about the baseball metaphor in American politics. It was Seersucker Thursday in the Senate. On a muted TV, McConnell wandered the Senate floor in light-blue pastels like a man trying to give away a mint julep. “That’s not really Reid’s style,” an aide told me. Reid had opted for a plain black suit. The dark glasses he has worn since a January exercise mishap gave him the air of an aging creative writing professor. Behind Reid hung a portrait of Mark Twain, who once said baseball was the perfect metaphor for “the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!”

Did you have any 42-year-old DHs in mind when you came up with that line? I asked Reid.

Rodriguez has surprised me, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “He’s only 40,1 but he’s surprised me. As far as we know, without juice.”


1.

In fact, A-Rod will turn 40 in July.

When Reid ventured a baseball metaphor, he joined one of the few unbroken traditions in American politics. During Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, a political cartoon cast Lincoln as a “run” and his three opponents as “outs.” Warren Harding asked the American public to “strive for production as Babe Ruth strives for home runs.” At an exhibit at the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas, great baseball metaphors of the POTUSes are painted on the walls as if they were choice cuts from the Gettysburg Address.

Some baseball metaphors, like Reid’s, transcend mere filler. They’re fiendishly clever or awfully strange and help us understand the labyrinthine world of politics. And some baseball metaphors — as McConnell was saying on the Senate floor that day, about a slightly different subject — constitute a “threat that is literally impossible to overstate.” These metaphors are the cheapest form of rhetorical base-covering — or, in some cases, a complete whiff.

reid-harry-johnson-daveyBill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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Only war (“battleground” state, “bombarding” the airwaves) competes with baseball for metaphorical supremacy in politics. “The lingua franca of both is clichés, right?” said Mark Leibovich, a New York Times Magazine writer and author of This Town. “They work in the service of each other.”

Indeed, when Bernie Sanders challenged Saudi Arabia to “step up to the plate” and fight ISIS on Real Time With Bill Maher last week, the phrase was so boilerplate that it hardly registered as a sports reference. Last May, an anonymous Obamaite told Haaretz that Martin Indyk, the former ambassador to Israel, was waiting “in the bullpen” for the peace process to restart. You got the gist even if you had never heard of Indyk, or had no sense of the current state of Middle East diplomacy.

The football metaphor — the fourth quarter; moving the goalposts — will probably one day surpass the baseball metaphor. Even Reid once compared the Republican leadership vacuum to the Jets quarterback situation. But for now, baseball metaphors reign supreme. The first reason is that the Senate is a permanent gerontocracy. Reid is 75 — old enough to remember when his beloved Indians won the ’48 World Series. (He has since become a Nationals fan.) When we met, Reid hadn’t watched the NBA Finals. He refuses to go to Redskins games or even utter the name “Redskins.” But he dips into a baseball game on TV just about every night. His only gripe focuses on late start times on the West Coast.

“I suspect when Hillary is president,” former Bill Clinton courtier Paul Begala wrote in an email, “she will likely talk of home runs and singles and strikeouts, too. That’s how deep baseball has penetrated the national consciousness. After all, it takes a dugout.”

The baseball-politics connection has been pounded into the mitt by a generation of fans in the press corps. Jeff Greenfield remembered his mom switching off Yankees radio broadcasts in the summer of 1952 to listen to the Democratic National Convention. Adlai Stevenson versus Estes Kefauver replaced Mickey Mantle versus Bob Lemon, but the language hardly needed to change. “Because politics is essentially a contest, a zero-sum game,” Greenfield said, “the tendency to describe it in sports metaphors and game metaphors is overwhelming.” As our baseball knowledge has expanded, our metaphors have gotten nerdier. A Leibovich source once described Barack Obama as a “five-tool politician.”

Baseball metaphors, the writer Kathleen Hall Jamieson has noted, are the utility infielders of political speech. You can compare a politician to a skipper, a fire man, a cleanup hitter — an honorific Reid bestowed upon Hillary Clinton in 2001. You can compare a news event to a changeup, a brush-back pitch, a home run. “Home run is probably the most overused term,” said Jason Chaffetz, a Republican congressman from Utah. “It’s the go-to term. Not many people can pull off an analogy using a sacrifice fly or a bunt.”

In 1990, David Souter’s nomination to the Supreme Court became a war of baseball metaphors. The White House said Souter was a “home run and the ball is still ascending.” A conservative activist who doubted Souter’s right-wing bona fides said that Souter was a “blooper single.”

After two decades of watching Souter side with the court’s liberals, Krauthammer said, “I think it was an unassisted triple play against the Republicans.”

Some baseball metaphors are a result of cloakroom guy talk seeping into public discourse. “On the other hand,” said Matt Latimer, who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, “Ronald Reagan, for example, was a sports announcer, and politicians do talk in those kinds of terms. It’s not unnatural to speak in sports metaphors to people. It’s not all fraudulent.”

Of course, much of it is fraudulent. Harding was trying to barnacle himself to Ruth, an American hero who was a lot more popular.

For similarly dismal game score, listen to former senator Tom Daschle try to reach voters in the loge level in 2009: “Our team is ready to play; it is a new season, and we’ve waited a long time. The American people have seen affordable health care for all as something out of Field of Dreams. … Build it and they will come.”

When I mentioned the baseball pander to Reid, he said, “I’m not much of a panderer on anything, so you don’t have to worry about that with me.”

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Politicians like to use baseball metaphors as markers of time. “It’s the bottom of the ninth, and tax reform is rounding third and heading home,” Reagan declared in 1986. “We’re about to score the winning run, not just of the game but of the whole season.”

To listen to politicians and their chroniclers, it’s always the ninth inning. The metaphor was pushed before the initial flop of Obama’s recent trade bill; during the last, delegate-Hoovering hours of the 2008 Democratic primaries; during Chuck Schumer’s final fund-raising push before the 2006 midterms. (Schumer’s haul, of course, proved to be a “grand slam.”)

If it’s not the ninth inning, it’s the first. “We’ve had, if you will, the first inning of a game that has, let’s say, 50 innings in it,” Mitt Romney told supporters after finishing second in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. This was an awful baseball metaphor. It made the primaries seem like Pawtucket-Rochester in 1981. Moreover, the binary choice between the first and ninth innings (with the occasional “we’re going into extras”) makes you doubt how much thought politicians put into their metaphors. Nobody says, “It’s the middle of the fourth, and we’re looking at a rain delay of a few hours” — even if that’s what Obama’s second term has felt like.

Politicians do better when they mine the actual metaphorical connections between baseball and their day jobs. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” Franklin Roosevelt said in 1933. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for the team.” Sixty-five years later, Jesse Jackson reached for the same lumber when he graded the Clinton administration. “In one inning they make a great catch, in another they drop the ball,” Jackson said. “In one they score a home run, in another they strike out. But it is their cumulative batting average that we are interested in.”

The cynical reading of this metaphor is that it’s a handy way for politicians to excuse repeated failure. The generous reading is that baseball helps us accept the idea that politics and repeated failure go hand in hand: Get on base 30 percent of the time, put George Lakoff on retainer, and you’ll probably still get reelected. As George W. Bush put it: “From baseball I developed a thick skin against criticism. I learned to overlook minor setbacks and focus on the long haul.”

“It comes back to why I think baseball inculcates a temperament suitable to popular governance,” Will said. “Democracy is the politics of persuasion. Persuasion requires time and effort and small, incremental gains. That’s baseball.”

As they say, it’s a long season.

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Baseball metaphors are handy for cheap, shorthand judgments of other politicians. A rare positive notice came from Richard Nixon in 1990, when Larry King asked him to grade the first term of George H.W. Bush:

Nixon: In baseball terms, do you remember George Bush was a first baseman, captain of the Yale baseball team?

King: But he didn’t hit very well.

Nixon: As a matter of fact, the scout said, “George Bush, good glove, poor bat.” Now, how has he done as president? Well, as far as his glove is concerned, it’s a golden glove. He made very few errors, so we have a great golden glover as far as the president is concerned on the defense. And the other point that we should bear in mind as far as batting is concerned, he is hitting over .500 a day. As a matter of fact, according to the polls, he’s hitting around 70 to 75 percent.

Despite Nixon’s endorsement, two years later voters would option Bush to Triple-A — a destination suggested by many baseball metaphors. Gerald Ford in ’76: “[Jimmy Carter] is a minor leaguer. His scorecard would not put him in the big leagues.” Mike Barnicle on Rick Perry in ’12: “He can hit pitching at AA ball in Alpine, Texas. He gets called up to the major leagues and he just can’t do it there.” Leibovich was told by a source that Bob Shrum — the Democratic adviser who skippered several unsuccessful presidential campaigns — had “warning track power.”

Before the 2000 Democratic primaries, Al Gore tried to goad Bill Bradley into having more debates. “What about it, Bill?” he asked. If Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “just stayed in the dugout … and didn’t step up to the plate, they wouldn’t hit many home runs.” This baseball metaphor was both a pander — McGwire and Sosa were still Ruthian icons then — and an attempt to lure Bradley into a trap. Gore, of course, wanted Bradley to strike out looking in their debates, which Bradley mostly did.

Harry Truman — who was a switch-pitcher before Pat Venditte — warned of Nixon throwing America a “curve,” according to the book Baseball: The Presidents’ Game. But the most famous baseball metaphor as taunt came in 1988, when Jim Hightower, the Texas agriculture commissioner, said that George H.W. Bush “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Twenty years later, Ohio governor Ted Strickland refitted the metaphor for Bush fils: “George W. Bush came into office on third base, and then he stole second.”

Third base is the key metaphorical base in politics. It signifies privilege and overconfidence. When the Republicans were crushed in the ’06 midterms, The American Prospect’s Mark Schmitt wrote, “[T]hink of a baserunner who stole second, thought he could steal third, and is now scrambling to get back ahead of the throw.”

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Barack Obama is the most sports-metaphor-mad president the country has ever known. His metaphors range from baseball to basketball (ISIS is a JV team wearing Lakers jerseys) to football (“We don’t need to spike the football”). Obama, as they say, hits to all fields. “All the baseball metaphors — and sport metaphors generally, I would say — that have come out of his mouth have been ad libs,” said Jon Favreau, who spent four years as Obama’s director of speechwriting.

Last April, in Manila, Obama dropped the baseball metaphor that would become the most controversial of his presidency. ISIS was gathering strength in Syria; the Russian army had its fingers in Eastern Ukraine. How could the U.S. military keep the bat on its shoulder? “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said. 

“I think he was trying to say we got into trouble with people not — as they say in baseball — ‘staying within themselves,’” Will explained. “George W. Bush bit off more than he could chew, went up swinging trying to hit a five-run home run in Iraq. It was a time for a modest approach. Obama had a useful metaphor there.”

But the idea of hittin’ ’em where they ain’t was rhetorically underwhelming to voters who are used to hearing every politician praised for “knocking it out of the park” in a convention speech. “People don’t have a lot of words for single,” Krauthammer said. “They’ve got a lot of words for home run. In other aspects of life, that’s also true: murder, sex, wherever it gets the hottest.” Critics wailed that Obama was settling for — as the New York Times put it — “small ball.”

“He doesn’t like to get his jersey dirty, put it that way,” Chaffetz told me.

So a month later, Obama lugged out another baseball metaphor to describe his foreign policy. “Every once in a while,” he told NPR, “a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run. But you don’t swing at every pitch.”

Notice how Obama reframed his modest approach. He was no longer saying he wanted to be a singles hitter, which sounded unambitious. He was saying he wanted to have a good eye, which was unimpeachable. Someday, if history is kind, this will be known as the Joey Votto Doctrine.

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At its best, the baseball metaphor can help explain power relationships as delicate as those between Jeff Banister and Shin-Soo Choo. During the 1968 Democratic primaries, aide Richard Goodwin defected from Eugene McCarthy’s campaign to work for Robert Kennedy. McCarthy — a former semipro ballplayer — offered his blessing in the form of metaphor: “I mean, he can pitch for either the Cards or the Braves and move from one to the other in mid-season without giving away any signals.”

In 1983, Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone tried to convince his patron Ronald Reagan to let Japan bulk up its country’s military. “You be the pitcher, I’ll be the catcher,” Nakasone said. “But once in a while, the pitcher must listen to the catcher’s good advice.” Reagan allowed the buildup.

There are downsides. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson has noted, jock talk can just be a pithy way to call a politician a wimp. Moreover, the human brain attaches itself so eagerly to baseball metaphors that political figures can use them to oversimplify concepts that deserve greater consideration. During his 2005 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, John Roberts assured the Senate, “I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

Roberts was understating the complexity, and the power, of the job. Why, he’d just be the guy calling strikes — Chief Justice John Hirschbeck. “It was very clever — trying to distract attention from the fact that judges have to construe language,” Will observed. “Umpires don’t have to construe curveballs.”

A day later, then-Senator Joe Biden returned to the Roberts hearings with a more nuanced baseball-tinged analysis:

As you know, in Major League Baseball, they have a rule. Rule 2 defines the strike zone. It basically says from the shoulders to the knees. …

But you are in a very different position as a Supreme Court justice. As you pointed out, some places of the Constitution define the strike zone. … The strike zone is set out. But … you said unreasonable search and seizure. What constitutes unreasonable?

So, as much as I respect your metaphor, it’s not very apt, because you get to determine the strike zone.

When George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Court the same year, Judge Anthony Scirica, who testified on Alito’s behalf, refined the baseball metaphor further. “Much like a baseball umpire, a judge calls balls and strikes,” Scirica said. “If the pitch is down the middle or way outside, the call is straightforward. But many pitches are on the corners and then the calls are difficult. These cases require hard thought, and these are the cases where a judge earns his or her keep.”

That’s a more accurate accounting of a justice’s job, but we’re still painting the corners.

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The most poignant use of the political baseball metaphor — one Harry Reid hinted at — is to convey exhaustion. American politics is so soul-crushing, so riven by procedural horseplay, that sooner or later it reduces everyone to a 42-year-old DH.

“You know how I really feel?” Franklin Roosevelt said in 1945. “I feel like a baseball team going into the ninth inning with only eight men left to play.” Eight days after uttering that line, Roosevelt was dead.

“They booed Ted Williams, too, remember?” Lyndon Johnson sniffed in 1967, as his approval ratings sagged under the abattoir that Vietnam had become. “They’ll say about me I knocked the ball over the fence — but they don’t like the way he stands at the plate.”

The baseball metaphor attains a certain pathos when it hints at the end of a career. “In baseball, when they say you’re out, you’re out,” Gerald Ford said in 1975. “It’s the same way in politics.” A year later, Ford was out.

When I visited Reid, he had just spent a chunk of his day mired in a debate over the McCain Amendment to Invoke Cloture on HR 1735. “I cannot imagine why the Republican leader is doing this,” he said on the Senate floor. “It makes a mockery of the legislative process.” His voice didn’t rise to match the outrage of his words. A few minutes later, Reid walked back to his office with shoulders sagging. If you squinted, you could imagine Jim Leyland trotting to the mound for the last time.

Reid didn’t want to venture a baseball metaphor to describe what it feels like to spend the final days of his career under the thumb of the GOP majority. Instead, he did so to illustrate the kind of washed-up pol he didn’t wish to become: “I didn’t want to be known as somebody that was no longer able to hit in a regular lineup — that they had to bring me in off the bench.”

As they say, it ain’t over till, well, you know …