Friday, August 8, 2008

Obama and the rope-a-dope

A reader at Talking Points Memo thinks that Obama is using a rope-a-dope strategy. For those unfamiliar, the "rope-a-dope" was a strategy that Muhammad Ali used as a boxer, most memorably against Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Basically, you let your opponent hit you hard, and let him tire himself out, and then, when he's exhausted, you hit him hard. This only works if you can take a lot of abuse yourself before hitting back. Ali could, so it worked for him.

I think this is probably an excellent description of Obama's strategy, with the caveat that I am not sure that it is conscious - I doubt if Obama himself would admit to using the rope-a-dope. But I'm going to use it, because it works, at least for now.

A key part of using the rope-a-dope in politics is not letting yourself get frustrated. McCain is clearly very frustrated at this point, and will only be getting more so as the campaign heats up. It takes a lot to get Obama frustrated.

This is why McCain keeps calling Obama arrogant. It's what the insecure call the self-confident when they can't get any traction. Obama's self-confidence drives the right nuts. Which, of course, is ultimately to Obama's advantage, because the crazier they get, the worse they act.

A key part of not letting yourself get frustrated is knowing that you have a great strategy, and having confidence in your team's ability to execute that strategy. This is a virtuous circle: the better your strategy, the better the people you will attract, and, as your strategy starts to pay dividends, the better your people will feel. As your team feels more confident, they will execute your strategy better, and, most important, they will feel less and less frustrated.

Obama is very confident in his own strategy and in his own ability to execute it. McCain is not as confident, in large part because he doesn't have as good of a strategy.

I think this is laying the groundwork for the rope-a-dope. At some point, McCain is going to be very frustrated, and he is going to start making mistakes. At least, bigger mistakes than the ones he is making now. At some point, he is going to make a very bad mistake. We don't know what it is, but I think he'll say something that he regrets very much, and which he can't explain or justify. Right now, he is still getting away with things like suggesting that his wife participate in a bikini contest at a biker rally. He's sort of getting away with negative ads. But he's losing his reputation as a "straight talker," and members of the press are starting to challenge him.

The rope-a-dope moment will come when the press is finally tired of the "maverick" schtick, and McCain says something that they cannot gloss over. At that point, Obama won't even have to do anything. He'll just have to be the guy who DIDN'T make that mistake, and hasn't made any serious mistakes over the course of this campaign. Obama will hit McCain very hard just by smiling.

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