09/29/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Speech, and the Strategy Behind It

Republicans should be scared.

Not because Obama just delivered a great speech, but because it pretty clearly demonstrated what Obama has been up to for the last month.

As you may recall, the mainline press has spent the last few weeks pontificating ad nauseam about the ascendence of the McCain camp and the relative reticence of Obama's campaign.

Not long after Karl Rove's former deputy, Steve Schmidt, took over McCain's campaign, the Obama team essentially stepped back and handed McCain the initiative.

To most operatives, particularly those who worked with the Gore and Kerry campaigns, that seemed to spell a death wish on Obama's part.

After all, if there was anything the Democrats learned over the last two elections, it's the need to control the daily news cycle, to take the initiative and keep it -- not by reacting to GOP attacks, but by attacking the other candidate, hour by hour, day in and day out, until the electorate at large unconsciously thinks of the other side as being weak.

For the last month or so, the Obama camp appeared to recoil in the face of that challenge. It all but handed the initiative to the McCain campaign.

And now we know why. This wasn't a case of fatigue, as some suggested; nor was it a case of Democratic timidity rearing its head yet again.

Rather, it appears to have been a calculated decision on Obama's part.

As Mark Blumenthal and Marc Ambinder have reported, the Obama camp has some very positive numbers in the 18 swing states they're targeting.

As a result, they clearly felt they had the luxury of being able to ignore the national polling for a while. So long as their internal numbers -- for voter registration, voter turnout, etc -- stayed strong, it didn't matter to them if McCain pulled even nationally.

In fact, the more confident McCain became, the more it played right into their hands.

Read or watch the speech the again, and you should see what I mean -- tiime and again, Obama takes a GOP attack line against him and turns it on its head.

For example, look at how well he redefined the personal attack against his patriotism:

But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

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.

Put it all in context and Obama's recent strategy seems clear enough. It's a variant of the "rope-a-dope" strategy in boxing, where you let the opponent throw his best punches, exhaust himself on the offensive, and then unleash a barrage of your own.

Or as Andrew Sullivan put it, Obama "let them over-reach, and let them punch him again and again ... and then he turned around and destroyed them. If the Rove Republicans thought they were playing with a patsy, they just got a reality check."

That's obviously a risky strategy, one that takes a higher degree of confidence than a polarized electorate typically allows for. But Obama is a unique candidate with a unique constituency, a politician whose appeal extends across enough demographic groups that he felt he could bear that risk responsibly.

And last night he delivered. It was the first great speech of my generation, and it sent the GOP headed towards 2012.