Remember the famous "Rumble in the Jungle," where an aging Muhammad Ali outfoxed a youthful, overeager George Foreman in one of the greatest fights of all time?
Ali was almost over the hill at age 32 and hadn't held the title for five years. Foreman was a youthful 25 and had been crowned champion when he clobbered Joe Frazier, who had beaten Ali in the 1971 "Fight of the Century." In his prime, Ali had won by "floating like a butterfly stinging like a bee." Now in 1974 there was a question of whether Ali's aging legs could keep him out of reach of Foreman's devastating power.
When they finally entered the ring, Ali astonished everybody by cowering against the ropes and letting Foreman beat him mercilessly. To this day it is not clear whether Ali's corner knew what was going on -- they kept yelling at him to get off the ropes and move around. For eight rounds Ali took literally hundreds of blows until Foreman had punched himself silly. Then he suddenly jumped off the ropes and decked the arm-weary Foreman with a flurry of five punches.
That's the kind of fight Mitt Romney should be fighting -- and is fighting -- against Barack Obama.
There is no sense in trying to match Obama, gutter-punch for gutter-punch. The Obama team has obviously decided (what else could they do?) that the President cannot run on his record. Therefore the only thing to do is hit Romney with whatever comes to hand. There won't be any attempt to be logical or consistent. Anything that turns up they will throw at him.
Thus, when the Boston Globe runs a stupid story saying Romney was "lying to the American people" because his name appeared on Bain Capital SEC filings after he had left the firm to run the Salt Lake Olympics, Obama's team didn't wait a day before announcing Romney had "committed a felony" and "should go to jail." When it turns out Fortune had already vetted the whole issue six months ago and it involved nothing more than a procedural matter -- well, on to the next issue.
Obama is punching himself silly. He has reached the point where he is ad libbing and that puts him out of control. His now famous outburst about "You didn't build that [business]" -- which may have been the turning point in the campaign -- was right off the top of his head. You know perfectly well he's been saying the same things for years with Valerie Jarrett and Bill Ayers. It's only his careful self-censorship that has kept these things under control. Now he's losing it.
Every one of his campaign gambits may cause a brief sensation -- and be celebrated in the media -- but they quickly wear thin. The Obama team has apparently decided, for instance, that the under-24 generation can be won by mining the social media. How many times have you now been invited to the President's birthday party? How many times has Michelle Obama asked, "Are you in?" This may cause a sensation among people who have iPhones implanted in their heads and burnish the candidate's Hollywood celebrity. But is this what people want in a President? Is the thrill of texting going to replace common sense? In any case, Facebook ads don't generate much interest. Look what happened to the IPO.
In the midst of this all, Romney is doing exactly the right thing. He is standing above, appearing presidential. Sure, he should air some footage highlighting Obama's claim that every startup business is really the work of the government. And sure, he should allow a few surrogates to drive home the point of Obama's crony capitalism little more forcefully. But for the most part, Romney is remaining dignified and unflappable while saying over and over that Obama's antics are "not worthy of a President." That's exactly the right approach. Let Obama flail away from one thing to another. The issue that is on people's minds is the economy and that isn't going to go away.
There's only one real danger in all this. That is that Romney could peak too soon. What you don't want is for the perception to settle in that Obama is on the downslide and Romney is actually going to win the race. Then there will be a sympathetic backlash. I still remember my mother saying she voted for Truman in 1948 because she felt sorry for the poor guy. You saw what can happen last week when a bunch of stupid Republicans in Indiana set up an Obama punching bag at a state fair. There was an immediate outcry and it was Republicans who looked "un-presidential." You don't want to turn Obama into the underdog. That's where he runs best.
In addition, die-hard conservatives keep demanding that Romney lay out some huge declaration of principles and make a point-by-point case for capitalism. I don't think that's what you want, either. The truth is, if you turned the contest into an up-or-down vote on capitalism, capitalism would probably lose by about 60-40.
People only like the fruits of capitalism. They don't necessarily enjoy the process itself. That's because capitalism promises change and disruption with little ultimate security. The real name for capitalism should be "the system whereby individuals respond to market signals by creating new things and new ways of doing things that people want." The definition of socialism is "the system whereby the government overrides market signals and in order to create the things that it wants." We've seen this as Obama has spent four years trying to create a windmills-and-biofuels economy that only a few people want and that won't do anybody any good.
We actually don't know what kind of economy we should be creating over the next ten years. That's because the market is a process of discovery. All Romney can do is allow those signals to come through loud and clear so that people will respond to them. But that isn't enough to satisfy the average voter and all it does is create the anxiety that nobody is doing anything. Much better to have an activist President squandering billions of dollars of "stimulus" money on a National Energy Plan. At least we can all see what he's doing.
People do not like change and do not embrace it easily. That's why we have environmentalism -- so that affluent people can find a good excuse for leaving things the way they are. Nor do they always like to change Presidents. Right now Romney represents something unknown while Obama -- bad as he may be -- is at least familiar. If people start expecting Obama to lose, they may begin to have doubts: "He really hasn't been that bad. At least he's trying. Maybe we should give him one more chance." I'll be happy if Romney is still 3-4 points behind in the final week. Then voters will be able to go into the booth and say, "Do we really want another four years of this? Let's try something different."
Right now Romney is running a very smart, tactically sound campaign. All the mistakes have been on the other side. If he can maintain his dignity and continue to appear presidential, that should be enough to sway those last few crucial votes. Remember, this election is not going to be decided by people who have already made up their minds they can't stand Obama. It's going to turn on those last few voters who finally get tired of watching the President flail away.