The Soft Art

In the modern age of American presidential elections, primary campaigns have followed a very specific pattern. First, a front-runner is anointed by the elite journalists. He is either a vice-president (current or former) or someone who has been a longtime national leader, but in either case he is the most famous of his party's contenders. Next, a challenger emerges, donning a glittering cloak of "new ideas." He briefly captivates the voters, though few can quite put their finger on what his ideas are, or what makes them so new. Then voting begins, and the front-running candidate's advantages of recognition, money, institutional support, and organization prove too much for the challenger, who fizzles out ignominiously, with everyone left wondering what it was about him that was supposed to be so appealing in the first place.

To one degree or another, this has been the pattern in almost every contested primary since the current system was inaugurated in 1972 (when the smoke-filled room at the party convention was replaced as the means by which nominees are decided). The challengers who faced establishment candidates -- Howard Dean in 2004, Bill Bradley and John McCain in 2000 Steve Forbes in 1996, Ronald Reagan in 1976, to name a few -- all succumbed in the end to the irresistible force of their better-known opponents. The one candidate who managed to defeat an anointed frontrunner was George McGovern in 1972, who bested Ed Muskie.

Until this year, that is. For the first time in 36 years, a candidate universally acknowledged as her party's inevitable nominee was not the one left standing at the end. So how did it happen -- or more specifically, what made Barack Obama different?

Much ink has been spilled over the last week on the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign. And although there certainly were plenty, hindsight always makes the losing candidate's effort look like it was produced by the Keystone Cops, while the winner's campaign seems a smoothly purring machine, efficient and skillful to the smallest detail. Yet even the most objective observer would have to acknowledge the achievements of the Obama campaign -- the extraordinary fundraising, the deft handling of the press, the resourceful exploitation of the quirks of the caucus system, and the monumental feat of grassroots organizing, to name just a few.

But perhaps more than anything else, Obama won because he rode the unpredictable waves of the campaign with a truly remarkable dexterity. It was his ability to parry attacks and turn them to his advantage that kept his campaign moving forward and upward, when others would have found themselves unable to go on.

When historians look back at Obama, they may well see this as his defining political ability. When the Jeremiah Wright controversy raged, Obama delivered a speech on race that commentators called the most important statement on the subject in decades. When he was criticized for an extemporaneous statement in a debate expressing willingness to talk to foreign dictators, he did not retreat and apologize; instead, he turned the issue into an attack on his opponents for being unable to move beyond George W. Bush's foreign policy. Whenever he seemed to be at a disadvantage, Obama found the means to turn things around and emerge stronger than he had been before.

In short, Obama displayed the abilities of a practitioner of the "soft" combat arts. Eastern martial arts are divided into two broad groups: the "hard" arts such as karate and tae kwon do, which emphasize powerful attacks with hands and feet, and the "soft" arts such as judo and aikido, in which the practitioner concentrates on redirecting the opponent's energy to use against him. Soft techniques tend to be more subtle than hard ones, and require more time to achieve proficiency. In martial arts as in politics, even a sloppy kick or punch can still do damage, while turning an opponent's attack into a painful wrist lock requires a combination of speed and precision.

This analogy may be an imperfect one; Obama certainly knows how to attack, and Hillary Clinton, for one, showed that she too could turn defense into offense. But of all Obama's strengths, this may be the one that troubles Republicans the most. They have gotten used to skittish Democrats, ready to flinch every time the GOP raises a fist. Yet a martial artist schooled in the soft arts doesn't fear being attacked, he welcomes it. In his decisions, his rhetoric, and his attitude, Obama doesn't display fear. Republican attacks only reinforce his central argument, that he is indeed the candidate of change and hope.

Ezra Klein wrote last week that Democrats "think of presidential elections as an away game." He was talking about the attraction many Democrats feel to Virginia Senator Jim Webb's two-fisted style, in such contrast to so many of their leaders of recent years. As E.J. Dionne wrote in his 2004 book Stand Up, Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge, "The party that once galvanized a nation by declaring that there is nothing to fear but fear itself has become afraid -- afraid of being too liberal, afraid of being weak on defense, afraid of being culturally permissive, afraid of being seen as apologizing for big government."

Unlike Webb, Obama doesn't strike one as someone who might literally beat the crap out of you if you had a disagreement. But he shows a similar fearlessness. Obama knows precisely what they will be throwing at him, and he has already planned his response.

As I have been arguing since 2006 (see here and here), Obama was always the candidate with the most coherent and compelling narrative to his candidacy, a story that explains to voters what's wrong with the country, what the solution is, and why he and only he can deliver them to a brighter future. As the campaign progressed, he managed to turn each controversy back to this ground, forcing opponents to argue about change and hope, reinforcing his central argument at every turn. If John McCain's comically weak refrain attacking Obama -- "That's not change we can believe in" -- is any indication, McCain looks to be exactly the kind of opponent a practitioner of the soft arts hopes for: unskilled, unfocused, flailing wildly about and barely able to maintain his balance. No wonder Obama looks so confident.

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