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Clinton Rope-A-Dopes Obama

By Blake D. Dvorak

The strategy in boxing that Ali taught Foreman is called rope-a-dope. You allow your opponent to pound away at you as you appear to be pinned against the ropes. But what you're really doing is allowing your opponent to tire himself out, let down his guard and expose his weaknesses. Then you hit back.

Aside from his inexperience, Barack Obama's weakness has always been his insistence on tying his image and his campaign to a "politics of hope." Variously defined, it means a politics of inspiration; of bipartisanship; of congeniality.

Whatever it means, it has served Obama well on the trail, earning him attention and accolades - the audacity! - and the support of 260,000 donors. But it comes with a price, and the price is that if you choose to fight back, you risk becoming the very politician you're telling everyone you're not.

This, we now know, was Hillary Clinton's strategy since the end of Monday's CNN/YouTube debate in South Carolina. On the question of whether in their first year in office the candidates would meet with the leaders of North Korea, Iran, Syria, et al. "without preconditions," Obama said yes and Clinton said no. If there's any doubt that Obama flubbed a gimme, consider that even populist, netroots hero John Edwards sided with Clinton. Afterward, campaign manager David Axelrod joined reporters in the spin room to explain that Obama didn't really mean what he said.

The rookie mistake certainly called for a response from Clinton, who, though a double-digit frontrunner, isn't about to let an opportunity slip away. Recall that after the first debate, when Obama foolishly gave a non-military answer to a military question, the Clinton campaign issued a press release the next day highlighting her response, which was to retaliate militarily, without mentioning Obama. Everyone of course understood who the target was, but Clinton left that to the partisans and pundits to squabble over.

Clinton could have done something similar after Monday's debate. Instead what Clinton does is unleash a calculated and relentless campaign against Obama that must have caught the rookie a bit off-guard. First, a YouTube of Clinton's response is up almost immediately; then, the next day, Clinton supporter Madeleine Albright holds a conference call with reporters to discuss Clinton's "understanding of national security issues"; finally, later that day, Clinton herself gives an interview to the Quad-City Times in which she utters the now infamous "irresponsible and frankly naïve" line to describe Obama's answer.

Clinton was picking a fight.

Now for the rope-a-dope. Within hours, Obama responds to the Quad-City Times interview with one of his own. On Wednesday, he gives an exclusive interview to NBC News, which dominates the nightly headlines, and says:

"I think what is irresponsible and naïve is to have authorized a war without asking how we were going to get out - and you know I think Senator Clinton hasn't fully answered that issue."

It was good, sharp line that Obama would use again. Also in the interview he began repeating another line:

"Senator Clinton is wrong ... we are continuing with Bush-Cheney policies, and I'm not interested in continuing that." And, "If we say that we will not talk to them unless they meet a series of preconditions, then that's the same position that Bush and Cheney have maintained over the last six years."

Obama clearly thought he had found a winning soundbite. Later, on Thursday, he would use it again at a rally, this time calling Clinton's policies "Bush-Cheney lite."

During Obama's push-back, Clinton's team was responding, but issuing a statement from Richard Holbrooke is more like a feint than a real counterattack. Indeed, by Wednesday night, an Obama aide was telling Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder: "I think we've got her on her heels."

Or on the ropes, which is exactly where Clinton wanted to be. Having exposed Obama's weakness, she struck Thursday night in an interview with CNN:

"Well, this is getting silly. I've been called a lot of things in my life, but I've never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney, certainly. We have to ask, what's ever happened to the politics of hope?"

Was she inflating Obama's comments? Of course. It doesn't really matter, though. Clinton had struck at the core of Obama's campaign message and hit her mark. Maybe she and her team didn't strategize as methodically as the rope-a-dope theory suggests. Maybe all they wanted was to see what Obama would do if seriously challenged.

But Clinton picked this fight for a reason and it's unlikely that reason was entirely about exposing Obama's inexperience in foreign policy. Rather, Clinton baited Obama into the trenches so that everyone could see that he's just another politician.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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