And tonight, Barack Obama used it put John McCain back on his heels.
The secret? The counterattack.
Used properly, the counterattack combines the strength of defensive positioning with the aggressiveness of an offensive attack and the added bonus of surprise. The combination can be lethal.
In Obama's case, his campaign lured McCain into launching a series of attacks--on Obama's patriotism, on his experience, and on his ability to relate to the American people. As usual, the Democrats and the punditocracy lamented Obama's "weakness" in not responding to McCain with immediate denials.
As usual, the Democrats were panicky and devoid of strategic insight.
By not responding forcefully, Obama's campaign (led by "The Ax") tricked McCain into overextending his lines. Tonight's speech by Obama must have hit the McCain war room like a thunderbolt.
It wasn't one of Obama's best speeches; it lacked the poetry of many of his earlier orations. But it was brutally efficient in the way it went right after McCain's overreaching attacks and made them look ridiculous.
The Democrats decked out Invesco field with tens of thousands of American flags. Obama neatly defused charges of empty rhetoric and inexperience by offering a strongly stated series of policy prescriptions (BTW, I know Obama's VC buddies were ecstatic when he promised to both eliminate the capital gains tax for startups and invest $150 billion in cleantech). He relentlessly tied McCain to the albatross of George W. Bush's unpopularity, and kicked him while he was down for good measure with the line of the night: "John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives."
And after he finished pounding the crap out of McCain, he turned around and called for both campaigns to disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism, a fiendishly clever fork that neatly gives McCain the choice of either A) abandoning the only lines of attack which seemed to work, or B) looking like a dirty rotten scoundrel.
The reactions to the speech have been predictably mixed, but strategically, it was a rout. While it started slow and included a bit too much Democratic voodoo economics, the brutally effective demolishing of McCain's campaign strategy, and a well-timed return to Obama's post-partisan appeals made it a big winner.
And even I have to tip my cap to this sort of rhetorical mastery:
The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.
The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together, and bled together, and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a red America or a blue America; they have served the United States of America.So I've got news for you, John McCain: We all put our country first.
America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices. And Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past, for part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that's what we have to restore.
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.The -- the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.
But this, too, is part of America's promise, the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.
I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer, and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values.
And that's to be expected, because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters.
If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things.
Unbelievable. Obama highlighted the four of the deadliest third rails in American politics (abortion, gun control, homosexuality, and immigration). Whatever you might think, he's not playing small ball. He's going for it. (Of course, even Obama isn't crazy enough to tackle Social Security...)
But fear not McCain fans, all is not lost. What McCain must now do is to use the power of counterattack to defeat Obama's offensive and retake the initiative.
Let's face it, after listening to a very liberal speech, I doubt many hard-core Republicans are going to abandon McCain. Moreover, Obama doesn't need to win over Republicans to win. In this environment, all he has to do is with the Democrats and fight McCain to a draw with Independents.
McCain has got to reverse his rightward tack and hit Obama where the chain of logic is weakest: That John McCain is the continuation of George W. Bush.
McCain needs to abandon his attempts to cozy up to the party faithful and repudiate the failed aspects of the Bush administration.
He needs to convince independents that he really is a maverick, and that he will make change, but in a less risky way than Obama.
Sure, this requires a flip-flop, but given McCain's relationship with the press, he can probably pull it off.
Unfortunately for McCain and the Republican Party, McCain has not show himself to be much of a strategic thinker. I expect him to double down on what has worked for the Republican party in the last two elections: Increasingly vicious character attacks. But that will simply play further into the hands of Obama's jiu-jitsu approach.
If Obama's campaign has demonstrated anything over the past year, it's that the Ax and his team are masters of discipline and timing. They took on the most powerful name in Democratic politics and won by cleverly focusing on accumulating delegates in overlooked ways. They've consistently used key endorsements and defections at times calculated to damage the opposition. And with tonight's speech, they just shredded McCain's gains and transformed the dynamic of the election.