Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Levels of losing: the Choakley

                I'm not here
                This isn't happening
                I'm not here
                I'm not here

                   - Radiohead

The Dead Man Walking.  The “This Can’t Be Happening.”  The Stomach Punch…… The Choakley?

Bill Simmons’ ingenious “Levels of Losing,” which ranks the myriad ways a sports fan can have his heart broken by a crushing loss, captures a universality of emotion with which any fan or political junkie can immediately empathize.  Watching Martha Coakley surrender Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican, I couldn’t help but wonder where Coakley’s epic fail would fall in the levels of losing.

After reading through Simmons’ sixteen levels of losing, I’ve narrowed the list down to the top five I think best describe Coakley’s defeat.  In making the list, I’ve kept in mind that Coakley’s loss is so much more than a failed individual contest, but that it represents the possible failure of everything liberals have been working for across the last year—indeed, the last half century—just at the precipice of success.

#5. The Role Reversal

Simmons’ definition: “Any rivalry in which one team dominated another team for an extended period of time, then the perennial loser improbably turned the tables… For the fans of the vanquished team, the most crushing part of the ‘Role Reversal’ isn't the actual defeat as much as the loss of an ongoing edge over the fans from the other team. You lose the jokes, the arrogance and the unwavering confidence that the other team can't beat you. There's almost a karmic shift. You can feel it.”

Why it fits: Well this doesn’t take a genius.  Massachusetts hadn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972—that’s twelve straight elections without a Republican victory.  The seat won by Scott Brown had been held by Ted Kennedy, the arch-liberal of the Senate, for over 40 years.   Massachusetts has a formidable Democratic get-out-the-vote machine, and had voted for Barack Obama by 26 points just 13 months ago.  By all accounts, a Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts should have been a juggernaut.

#4. The Dead Man Walking

Simmons’ definition: “Applies to any playoff series in which your team remains ‘alive,’ but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there's no possible way they can bounce back. ... Especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there's a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change. ... So you've given up, but you're still getting hurt, if that makes sense.”

Why it fits: This is exactly how I felt in the two to three days before the election.  Every poll showed Coakley losing, and Brown had all the momentum, and yet still I held out hope—even predicting against all rational evidence that Coakley could pull it out.  Heck, even Nate Silver wrote two posts that offered up some sliver of possibility.  But ultimately, as we all knew deep down it must, the miraculous momentum change never came.

#3. The Broken Axle

Simmons’ definition: “When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch. ... You know when it's happening because (A) the home crowd pushes their team to another level, and (B) the team that's collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis.”

Why it fits: Whether a new poll showing a surging Scott Brown, a fresh gaffe out of Coakley’s mouth, or a new media story chronicling Coakley’s collapse—and all three feeding each other in a self-fulfilling death spiral—it seemed the wheels kept falling off the Coakley caravan even after there were no wheels left to fall off.  First she scoffed at the basic duties of politicking: “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”  Then she called Curt Schilling “another Yankees fan.”  Two insults to the Red Sox in one campaign?  Stick a fuahk in ‘ah, she’s done.

#2. The “This Can’t Be Happening”

Simmons’ definition: “You're supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality. ... Suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, ‘Oh, my God, this can't be happening.’”

Why it fits: Now we’re really starting to dig deep into the dark depths of Democratic despair.  Do I even need to say anything here?

#1. The Stomach Punch

Simmons’ Definition: “Any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. ... Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. ... Always haunting, sometimes scarring.”

Why it fits: This is #1 because it not only captures the emotion of the final “this can’t be happening” days of the race, but because it encompasses the entire timeline of the health reform battle—a true political roller coaster ride if there ever was one.  We started with such promise, watching entranced on a frigid but hope-filled January morning as a young new president called us to “set aside childish things… to choose our better history,” the cold clarity of the bitter air crystallizing the hard but noble work that must now be done.  Swept into power on the promise of reforming America’s health care, economy, and climate, the new president had a 365-electoral vote mandate to carry out his agenda.

But as that agenda launched into action, the roller coaster began, and we felt that our better history might still be some time in the making.  The emotion reached a fever pitch in the August town halls, and liberals felt enraged and defensive over lunatic cries of “death panels,” “rationing,” and “government takeover.”  Frustrated progressives begged the President to abandon bipartisanship, and felt vindicated as each successive “moderate” Republican spurned the President’s open hand.

The President, however, stood firm, and delivered a game-changing speech.  By November, the bill had passed the House, and the Senate was even considering a public option—or not, as liberals again turned their rage toward Joe Lieberman for scuttling it.

Still, Joe played ball on the rest of the bill.  Health care reform was alive, and it had gotten further than at any time before.  With the public option gone, and after some stomach-turning horse-trading, we finally had Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, and Ben Nelson on board.  Filibuster after Republican filibuster failed, and on Christmas Eve, the second chamber passed health reform.  Just reconcile the bills and get them on the President’s desk.  The long, hard-fought slog was nearing its end, and universal health care was finally, inevitably, coming to America.  And with the finish line in sight… the wheels came flying off.  This isn’t happening.


Truth be told, I don’t think any one of Simmons’ levels of losing, by itself does justice to the disbelieving despair felt in liberal circles right now, because there’s a unique twist: the Ted Kennedy factor.  Here was universal health care’s most passionate advocate, so close to achieving his life’s work, cut down by a tumor just short of seeing his dream become reality.  Here was the man chosen to replace him—by the people Kennedy had served for forty years—unraveling his life’s work in the final mile.  Even the most rabid Republican has to feel some level of sympathy—even moral uncertainty—over Scott Brown’s stomach punch to a dead man’s last wish.

And to top it off, Massachusetts, alone of all states, already has universal health care!

Is there a sports analogy?  A star player who’d led his team through the playoffs, only to meet with a tragic accident and have to watch from the sidelines (or heaven) as his hapless replacement choked away the chance for greatness?  Texas’s Colt McCoy comes to mind: the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, who had to sit out the 2010 BCS national championship game after pinching a nerve five plays into it.  McCoy was replaced by a true freshman, who showed his inexperience by throwing a crucial interception that was returned for a touchdown with less than 20 seconds left in the first half.

But even that analogy only goes so far.  The freshman at least grew up quickly, and gave Texas two second-half touchdowns.  That’s more than can be said of Martha Coakley’s choke-job.

So it looks like we have no choice but to create a whole new level of losing based on recent events: The Choakley.

Definition: When a team’s star player is injured in the final game of his career, either (A) in a championship game in which the player’s team has a big lead, or (B) after a long playoff run but before the championship game, in which that player’s team is heavily favored… and that player’s replacement proceeds to throw away the game through sheer ineptitude.  As the other team chips away, the fans watch the jumbotron in dismay, as the injured star watches helplessly from the sidelines as his work unravels.  It’s not just the loss that gets you, but that the injury’s arrival at the last minute, rather than any skill on the part of the other team, is what led to the defeat—and that the star player will never get another shot.  Double points if the replacement player was a late season trade from a team with which he had previously won a championship.

Where does The Choakley rank in Simmons’ levels of losing?  I’d put it at #2—right behind the 1986 World Series.  But I could be persuaded otherwise.  After all, the 1986 loss has been exorcised, twice, albeit 18 and 21 years later.  Let’s just hope Ted Kennedy’s wish doesn’t have to wait that long. All I can say is, I'm glad I have health insurance.

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