“Jujitsu” is defined as “a method developed in Japan of defending oneself without the use of weapons by using the strength and weight of an adversary to disable him” at Dictionary.com. This method isn’t restricted to karate or other martial arts, though. Jujitsu is often practiced in politics. In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein explains that Richard Nixon frequently used this method to cultivate allegiance among the political middle, taking advantage of shrill liberals many a time.

You didn’t have to attack to attack. Better, much better, to give something to the mark: make him feel that he has one up on you. Let him pounce on your ‘mistake.’ That makes him look unduly aggressive. Then you sprang the trap, garnering the pity by making the enemy look like a self-righteous and hyperintellectual enemy of common sense. You attacked jujitsu-style, positioning yourself as the attacked, inspiring a strange sort of protective love among voters whose wounded resentments grow alongside your performance of being wounded. Your enemies appear only to have died of their own hand. Which makes you stronger. (28)

Perlstein’s thesis is that Nixon exploited the country’s division to get elected as president — an unlikely feat for someone who came from very little and faced plenty of demons along the way. There’s no doubt that Nixon’s ability to jujitsu was a key cog in that machine.

President Obama, quite a bit different from Nixon, seems to have developed his own jujitsu skills.

Let’s draw on a post from Jed at Daily Kos, in which he writes about Obama’s framing of McCain as “honorable” to flesh out the first example. I’m quoting quite a bit because it’s all spot on.

Recall during the campaign that through much of the spring and summer, many were mystified by then-candidate Obama’s deferential attitude towards John McCain. Time after time, Obama lauded McCain’s “lifetime of honorable service” to this nation.

It was obvious at the time that this framing was a not-so-cleverly veiled attempt to say that what was special about McCain was what he had done in the past, not what he could do in the future. But less obvious was the value of conceding that McCain conducted himself honorably.

Saying McCain was honorable played right into McCain’s vanity, and McCain’s own campaign echoed the same notion — portraying McCain as a special, uniquely honorable man.

But as politically dangerous as it may have seemed to concede that McCain was honorable, in so doing Obama effectively trapped McCain. The problem for McCain was that his only shot of winning the election was to destroy Obama’s character, and doing that would require a lowbrow campaign that would seem anything but honorable.

Predictably, McCain eventually set about trying to do just that, opening the door a crippling line of critique: that he was now running a dishonorable campaign, in the process betraying everything that had made him special.

In short, McCain was no longer McCain, and given the GOP’s political unpopularity, that was a political death sentence.

Viewed in retrospect, it’s easy to see that by vouching for McCain’s honorable character, Obama was actually elevating McCain to unrealistically high levels. In effect, Obama’s campaign was positioning McCain to take the exact fall that he ended up taking, yet the conventional wisdom was that Obama had not been tough enough.

The truth, however, was that by “being too nice,” Obama had actually been tougher than anybody realized. Instead of trying to throw dirt on John McCain, Obama had managed to bait McCain into burying himself.

There’s obviously a difference here. Nixon, while not attacking his opponent initially, still needed to get under their skin in order to produce the aggressive response that did them in. For instance, Perlstein refers to comments a resurgent Nixon made regarding Johnson’s Vietnam strategy, essentially (and cryptically) claiming that Johnson’s policies were threatening to American troops. President Johnson let Nixon have it at a press conference the next day, delivering a series of personal attacks. As Perlstein explains when telling the story, Johnson thought he was speaking of the Nixon who was politically dead, the one who couldn’t be kicked around anymore; of course, Johnson was wrong. The fact that the President of the United States delivered a series of blistering attacks on a Republican instantly strengthened Nixon’s standing among conservatives just as he was eying a path to the Republican nomination.

Obama, meanwhile, didn’t say anything remotely negative about McCain in his move. Calling him “honorable” and reflecting on his heroic biography often, Obama was effusive with praise. As Jed points out, the Obama team knew the numbers; they knew that McCain couldn’t win without running a divisive campaign. Facing a politician whose profile was in the stratosphere, personal attacks would be imperative for the McCain camp. The problem was that they were getting glowing remarks from the other side. It was like one of those moments on a TV sitcom: the protagonist does something, or is preparing to do something, that will harm a supporting character, and right before it’s supposed to happen, the supporting character showers the protagonist with glowing remarks and compliments. In the sitcom, it’s done naively, and it results in plenty of guilt on the part of the protagonist. On this past summer’s political stage, Obama’s campaign did it intentionally, knowing the depth of the contrast about to appear once the McCain campaign went negative.

While both situations differed in style, they still harmed the opponent by using their own strengths against them. Nixon got Johnson to attack him from his strength — the presidency itself — which resulted in the perceived overreaction. Obama used McCain’s honor — which everyone was talking about well into the summer, unwittingly playing into the hands of the Obama campaign — to create their own immunity from imminent personal attacks. Jujitsu.

In addition to the campaign example, President Obama has already used similar tactics while engaged in battle with the congressional Republicans over the stimulus package. Backed up by months of bipartisanship talk (which I don’t mean to imply was insincere) during the campaign and following a president who failed to act in a bipartisan manner, Obama’s effort to reach across the partisan divide was undoubtedly distinguished. The President invited Republicans to the White House, courted certain Republicans to be in his cabinet, and went to Capitol Hill to engage in bipartisan dialogue. Whether the Republicans were serious about compromise or not, Obama sure looked like he was interested. Of course, the House GOP was completely united in opposing the stimulus plan when it came time to vote (only three Republican senators voted for it), complaining about the process lacking bipartisanship.

The focus these days seems to be on the Republican unity. But isn’t this what Obama wants? In yet another possible jujitsu move, the Obama team has the bloviators inside the beltway talking about those principled Republicans who now have something to energize the party.

… But what happens if this stimulus, almost completely opposed by Republican representatives and senators, is successful?

Jujitsu.

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