"He's got to hit back," experts implore. "He's losing!" cry observers. Punishment is delivered over and over by a tough opponent, virtually unopposed by the brash and formerly confident competitor. Having survived bruising contests to get to the main event, concerns rise that he's lost his toughness, that an inability or unwillingness to attack will doom him against a hard-hitting opponent.
The scene, of course, is Zaire, 1974. George Foreman, a fearsome puncher and overwhelming favorite, had Muhammad Ali on the ropes from the beginning of their legendary "Rumble in the Jungle," and Ali put himself squarely in Foreman's sights, literally taunting Forman to hit him harder. It seemed a crazy strategy -- most boxers simply cannot survive the pounding of leaning back against the ropes and taking punch after punch. But Ali was working from a well-designed strategy, and he had the skill and the endurance to make sure the punches just barely missed their intended target. The glove instead of the eye; the temple instead of the jaw. Ali realized that if he could tire Foreman, get Foreman to punch and chase himself out of energy, he would have an opening. Viewers, perhaps especially the experts, were horrified that Ali refused to go on the attack in the initial rounds.
Through those early rounds, Ali did little to counter Foreman's onslaught, except for the intermittent jab or straight right to the face of an increasingly agitated Foreman. As the rounds dragged on, though, Foreman became visibly exhausted - and when Foreman threw everything he had at Ali early on and none of it worked, Ali made his move. Foreman, taxed by Ali's few but precisely landed early shots and drained from his movement and punches, was vulnerable to an increasingly aggressive Ali, who landed combinations in the later rounds. Eventually Ali went in for the knockout in the eighth, using a left hook to set up a straight right to Foreman's face, dropping him to the mat and ending the fight. Ali later dubbed this strategy the "rope-a-dope."
Senator Barack Obama does not seem to be angling for the political equivalent of a decision in the presidential race. His campaign is looking strategically over the coming months, recognizing that the campaign is just now moving past the early rounds, with "swing" voters still largely tuned out. Rather than letting loose his full arsenal, he is letting McCain punch himself out -- and McCain, like Foreman before him, is falling right into the trap. As long as McCain keeps diving to the gutter, he is neutralizing his most valuable attribute: a reputation for honesty and integrity. Meanwhile, as McCain destroys his own brand, Obama is dodging the punches. McCain and his surrogates are trying a new negative narrative practically every week, but according to the polls, nothing is sticking. Inexperienced, uppity, elitist, unpatriotic -- these rotating smears all fit under the general umbrella of "Other," but despite this barrage, the Obama campaign is deflecting the blows, readying themselves for the late rounds, the time that really matters.
It would be different, of course, if McCain were landing his punches. If Obama were trailing in the polls, if the narratives had erased his lead, he could not afford to lean back against the ropes. But McCain is throwing everything he can think of and Obama isn't even behind in the polls. There has been, admittedly, a small but measurable shift in the national numbers, with McCain narrowing the deficit from five or six to two or three, roughly, but overwrought pundits are underplaying the strategic angle. It's understandable, as the story of the race is one of consistency and stability, neither of which increase TV ratings or newspaper circulation, so to make it interesting we have a constant Obama falter watch.
When pundits and commentators make hyperventilating claims about Obama's alleged campaign appeasement, it is vital to note that Obama has played this game before. It's not that he won't hit back -- even in the rope-a-dope it's important to mix in a few shots in the early rounds -- but those who are calling for an all-out assault against McCain have short memories; some of the same observers were saying the same thing when Obama trailed Senator Clinton in the Democratic primary. In that contest his campaign proved its ability to wait for the right moment, which should have earned it the benefit of the doubt for the current race. Obama has an unprecedented amount of money, an unprecedented ground game, and virtually all the fundamentals are in his favor. With all that going for him, progressives should be cheering that he seems to be playing for the eventual knockout, rather than calling for him to lower himself to meet McCain in the dirt for the short-term benefits.
Democrats learned an important lesson about fighting back in 2004 when Senator Kerry thought ignoring the shameful "Swift Boat" attacks would disarm them; this is not an exhortation to turn the other cheek, but rather to recognize the importance of time and place. In boxing and in politics, when an opponent is overreaches, it is vital to choose the right moment to counter. Ironically, Senator McCain is a self-described boxing fanatic, and someone with his appreciation for the sweet science should recognize the danger of punching so hard so early. Having thrown roundhouse shots this early (his immediately infamous claim that Obama is choosing to lose a war to win an election comes to mind), he'll likely have nothing left when the critical moments arrive.
Meanwhile, Obama has slipped in well-aimed shots occasionally, like Ali did in the early rounds, as with his recent "Original" ad, tying McCain to President Bush. Even as I wrote this piece over the past few days, the campaign's ads are increasingly tough on McCain, and the intensity will only increase after the convention. Some early hits are important to land occasionally, to further soften McCain's image, but an onslaught from Obama over the summer would have only served to tarnish his own reputation -- and without the benefit of having swing voters yet paying attention.
Even if Obama does not play it exactly right, he's still likely to win. But so much the better if he can head into office as a politician who didn't go negative early and often, who won on the strength of his ideas and his character rather than by dragging his opponent through the mud. It's a risky strategy, to be sure, but patience is often rewarded, especially in the face of an aggressive opponent. Obama is relying on a strategy that has already worked once this cycle, this time against an opponent who is increasingly flailing and desperate. In September and October, in the late campaign rounds, the knockout blow will come.