I often use boxing analogies in describing political situations. The famous American journalist, A.J. Liebling wrote a renowned book on boxing with the title, The Sweet Science. To be sure, there is nothing sweet about the brutality of boxing. There is an aspect of boxing, however, that is most scientific: the methods in which a fighter’s tactical and strategic skills can negate the superior power and strength of his opponent.
The classic case study of this fascinating feature of boxing was the February 25, 1964 world heavyweight championship victory of Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay over the then heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston.
Ali wrested the heavyweight championship from Sonny when he failed to answer the bell for Round Seven. Muhammad entered the fight as an eight to one underdog, yet his superior quickness of hand and foot reduced Liston to rubble and rendered useless Liston’s vaunted and feared punching power.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s triumph last week over President Donald Trump in the government shutdown was totally reminiscent of Ali’s 1964 upset of Sonny Liston. Pelosi is the most effective Congressional leader since Lyndon Johnson in his capacity as Senate Democratic Majority leader in the 1950s. Like a supremely skilled boxer, Pelosi made Trump look like a rank amateur with her far superior political instincts and legislative craftsmanship, honed by years of experience. Boxers defeat punchers with movement skills, and Pelosi humiliated Trump with her gifts of political communication and maneuverability.
Yet there is an even more significant Ali-Pelosi similarity in their triumphs over Liston and Trump, respectively. Trump had achieved his triumphs over political opponents by combining the brute powers of his office with his ability to psychologically intimidate his adversaries. Part of the Trumpian intimidation routine was his name-calling of his opponents: Low energy Jeb, Lying Ted, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary. Liston won by combining his super-human strength with his immense ability to physically intimidate opponents with his baleful stare.
Liston lost his ability to physically intimidate opponents in his bout with Ali, and Trump lost his ability to psychologically intimidate his opponents in his clash with Pelosi.
Ali understood that a boxing intimidator becomes intimidated when he thinks he is facing a crazy man. He deliberately acted like a lunatic in the weeks prior to the fight and at the weigh-in. This clearly rattled Liston by the time he entered the ring.
Pelosi understood that as long as she coolly won every skirmish in the shutdown process, including the State-of-the-Union contretemps, Trump the Intimidator would become Trump the Intimidated. In fact, Trump became so rattled that he couldn’t come up with an insulting nickname for Pelosi.
The loss of his physical intimidation power meant the end of Sonny Liston as a championship contender. The loss of his psychological intimidation power spells the end of Trump’s effectiveness as a president for most practical purposes. Trump’s loss of his intimidation power especially affects his ability to keep GOP Senators in line in any vote to remove the president from office.
Dominant power in Washington has passed from Donald Trump to Nancy Pelosi. And in the process, Nancy Pelosi has become a national hero. She did this by sending House members to meet with government employees harmed by the shutdown. Her message was one of empathy for them.
By contrast, Trump’s message was anti-empathy. His message was conveyed by his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump. In so many words, the Lara-Wilbur message was “Let them eat cake,” qualifying the Trump administration for the Marie Antoinette award.
The ascension of Nancy Pelosi to the status of Number One Democrat in America has two major consequences for New Jersey.
First, it becomes more imperative for newly elected Democratic New Jersey US House of Representatives Mikie Sherrill, Jeff Van Drew, and Andy Kim to enhance their relationships with Pelosi. All three had indicated their unwillingness to support her reelection as Speaker during the campaign.
Second, it has been a virtual certainty from the beginning that Pelosi will endorse her fellow San Francisco area Democrat and longtime ally US Senator Kamala Harris for president. As the significance of the Pelosi endorsement for Harris increases, the odds lengthen against New Jersey US Senator Cory Booker in his quest for the White House.
As I watched on television Kamala Harris’s campaign speech in her home town of Oakland, California today, the following likely scenario crossed my mind. On January 20, 2021, we will have a Democratic woman president of Jamaican and Indian descent, Kamala Harris, a Democratic woman Speaker of the House of Italian-American descent, Nancy Pelosi, and a Democratic American Jewish Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer. On the diversity front, the Democrats are certainly achieving their goals.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.