Commentary: The unwritten rules of baseball, politics

The (Tacoma) News TribuneApril 30, 2012 

With the dawn of each new baseball season, talk turns to unwritten rules.

These are the rules that sanction unseemly behavior such as bunting to break up a no-hitter, stealing bases when your team has a big lead, admiring a long home run for too long.

It got me wondering, are there unwritten rules in politics? Last week, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about his political future, he said he would consider running for president again in 2016. But Perry is supposed to believe that Mitt Romney will win this year and be running for re-election in 2016. He broke the unwritten rule that says you can’t assume your party’s nominee will lose. At least not out loud, in public.

Also last week, U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor ruffled feathers when he gave money to a Republican caucus member who is running against another Republican caucus member after redistricting shoved the two into the same district.

Unwritten rule, some said. Leaders are not supposed to publicly take sides in such intramural contests.

It goes on. I once had to stay up all night waiting for Brock Adams to comment about winning the 1986 U.S. Senate race because his people said it was an unwritten rule that a winner can’t claim victory until the loser concedes.

I hadn’t heard that one. But I’m pretty sure it was once considered bad taste and bad politics to speak ill of a candidate’s dog. That might have started with the voter backlash suffered by Republicans who started rumors in 1944 that President Franklin Roosevelt had sent a destroyer back to Alaska to retrieve his dog Fala.

“His Scotch soul was furious,” Roosevelt said of the Scottie’s reaction to the slur. “He has not been the same dog since.”

Richard Nixon might have saved his place on the 1952 GOP ticket with his “Checkers speech,” in which he refuted allegations of corruption including that he accepted a pet as an improper gift.

“And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it,” Nixon said. And the voters agreed.

But this unwritten rule went out the window when Romney put Seamus on the roof of the car during vacations. He was in a kennel (the dog, not Romney), but Democrats attacked. Republicans retaliated by quoting from President Obama’s autobiography in which he described how he ate dog (tough), snake (tougher) and grasshopper (crunchy) as a child while living in Indonesia.

“Good pic of my son Jimmy’s bulldog, Apollo,” tweeted Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain last week. “I’m sorry Mr. President, he’s not on the menu!”

Another unwritten rule was shredded during the GOP contest this year. That would be the 11th Commandment, popularized – though not coined – by Ronald Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”

And there certainly had to have been a rule that Democrats don’t wage a secret campaign for a Republican in order to draw votes away from an unfavored fellow Democrat in a contested primary. That is, until liberals got away with such a trick in a 2010 primary in Everett.

Some unwritten rules get written down, Gig Harbor Councilman Derek Young noted when I asked for examples. The unwritten rule: A loser in a party nominating process shouldn’t later wage a third-party campaign. State law in Washington: A primary loser can’t run as a write-in candidate in November. Call it the Sore Loser Law.

But one unwritten rule seems to be nearly inviolate, that a winning candidate must say nice things about the opposition on election night. Apparently, no one likes a sore winner.

One election night, after listening to another of these gracious but most-certainly insincere speeches, David Brinkley had had enough.

“Just once,” the legendary TV newsman said, “I’d like to hear a candidate say what they really believe, that my opponent was a bum, and I’m glad he lost.”

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