Definition:

rope-a-dope (rōp′ə-dōp′)

adj.

Relating to or being a strategy in boxing in which one fighter covers up and often leans back against the ropes to allow the opponent to become exhausted by throwing punches so that the opponent cannot defend effectively late in the fight and is thus defeated.

That boxing technique was made famous by Muhammed Ali in the 1960s. I loved watching that guy box.

But wait! There is a second definition to which we should pay attention:

Relating to or being a strategy in which one behaves passively or with little aggression until an opportune moment arises for successful action.

Politicians have adopted that strategy, too, especially moderates. How did that work out for George W. Bush? The Democrats and legacy media beat him to a pulp, and he left office with very low popularity (12-14 Dec 2008 Gallup poll: 29%), which was exacerbated by his seeming refusal to fight back.

Political rope-a-dope is the essence of being a moderate politician. That involves straddling the fence on the issues, and for Republicans, it frequently means claiming to be a “conservative” while not supporting a sitting Republican president on the issues. There is an old adage that a political moderate is akin to someone standing in the middle of the road who gets run over by cars from both directions. Fast-forwarding to the Age of Trump, how has the rope-a-dope tactic worked out for moderate anti-Trump US senators? During the 2016 campaign, there were 16 US senators who made public statements against Candidate Trump. Four of them are now “history”:

  • Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). She was defeated for reelection in 2016 by just over 1,000 votes. I wonder whether she regrets stiffing Candidate Trump, who almost certainly could have delivered a few thousand additional votes. That made Ayotte perhaps one of the first to personally experience “Trumpenfreude” (the boomerang effect for those who diss President Trump).
  • Mark Kirk (R-IL). He lost his reelection bid in 2016 to Tammy Duckworth. Although he suffered self-inflicted wounds during his campaign, stiffing Candidate Trump was the coup de grâ
  • Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Despite the historical statistic that over 90% of senators running for reelection get reelected, Flake didn’t even bother to run again in 2018 because his NeverTrump antics dragged his poll numbers down to near single digits in his home state.
  • John McCain (deceased)

Let’s look at some 2018 senatorial races to see whether Republican rope-a-dope worked better than running as a full-throated Republican embracing a sitting Republican president:

  • Joe Donnelly (D-IN) lost to Mike Braun who ran as a pro-Trump Republican
  • Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) lost to Kevin Cramer who ran as a pro-Trump Republican
  • Dean Heller (R-NV.) lost to Democrat Jacky Rosen because he didn’t enthusiastically embrace President Trump
  • Claire McCaskill (D-MO) lost to Josh Hawley who ran as a pro-Trump Republican
  • Bill Nelson (D-FL) lost to Rick Scott who ran as a pro-Trump Republican

Oh, and Mitt Romney (R-UT) asked for the President’s endorsement, too, before subsequently backstabbing the President on a number of issues after he was elected to the Senate.

Moving on to 2020, twelve of those Republican senators who were publicly anti-Trump in 2016 are still in the US Senate, and at least three of them are being targeted by Democrats as those likely to vote with Chuck Schumer on the introduction of new witnesses and documents in the Senate impeachment trial: Susan Collins (R-ME); Cory Gardner (R-CO); Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Others likely being targeted according to press reports and the rumor mill include Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Martha McSally (R-AZ).

Collins, in particular, is clearly playing rope-a-dope in her public statements about the impeachment trial and the Democrats’ pushing for new witnesses and documents. She has openly stated that she is working with a “small group of Republican senators” to ensure witnesses are called, as reported here. Cory Gardner has been silent about the trial but has hosted a Trump fundraiser in Colorado (a smart move behind the scenes!). Romney has publicly stated that he’d like to hear from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, which is what the Democrats wish to see happen. Alexander stated this, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, which could easily be interpreted as being supportive of the Democrats’ push for new witnesses and document: “[W]e have a constitutional duty to respond. And to me, that means, No. 1, hear the case, not dismiss it summarily; No. 2, ask our questions; and No. 3, be guaranteed a right to vote on whether we need additional information such as documents or witnesses.” Murkowski stated on Saturday that she wants to hear the case presented by the House impeachment managers before deciding on whether new witnesses need to be called, as reported here.

Someone who has apparently not decided to play rope-a-dope going into the 2020 election is Martha McSally, who rebuffed leftwing CNN reporter Manu Raju as he pressed her on questions about the Senate impeachment trial and the “need” for evidence, as shown here:

That’s the kind of pushback that a few Republicans (mostly in the House) have learned to deliver to their political enemies in the Age of Trump! That exchange energized her Republican base and also independents in Arizona. It is axiomatic that a highly motivated and energetic base is the foundation for a successful campaign, and she apparently fully understands that.

This should be an easy political calculus for Republicans in 2020: hitch your political wagon to the Trump star on the issues, and let him help carry you to victory in November. For example, President Trump has the lowest average unemployment rate of any US president ever. How does a Senate challenger get around that fact? Or the 29,000+ Dow, or historically low African-American unemployment numbers, or the two mammoth trade deals? It’s a no-brainer: wrap your arms around the President.

Threading the needle with a rope-a-dope political strategy is a recipe for defeat. Does Susan Collins seriously think that strategy will work in Maine? One would have thought that other Republican senators had learned the “Ayotte lesson” long ago.

The end.