James Fallows reflects upon the Obama campaign's current line of attack against Mitt Romney's past experience at Bain Capital h/t: Sullivan). He writes that the effort is reminiscent of the "swiftboating" of John Kerry in 2004:
The effect of this kind of 'Swiftboating' is, as I pointed out, to change a candidate's presumed strength into his weakness, or vulnerability. The term's origin is of course the 2004 general election campaign, when falsehood-filled accounts of John Kerry's record (as a Swift boat naval officer in Vietnam) turned what he presumed would be a strength, his military record, into something he had to defend and explain. Long before the Swift boat episode, this jiujutsu technique was a specialty of Karl Rove's.
But I wonder if Romney's business experience at Bain is really a presumed strength. I suspect the Obama people are seeing it as a weakness, an emblem of Romney the rich guy out of touch with the average economically struggling American Joe in Ohio or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. As such, the Obama organization is not attacking Romney's strength but exploiting his weakness.... just as Sunzi would tell us.
In Chapter VI of The Art of War, aptly entitled "Weaknesses and Strengths," Sunzi frames the strategic situation in these terms (6.7):
To be certain to take what you attack is to attack a place the enemy does not protect. To be certain to hold what you defend is to defend a place the enemy does not attack.
This gets at the Obama campaign strategy. Bain is an issue that the Romney campaign has not protected well. It appears, at best, to be ambiguous: he has said that he left his CEO duties in 1999, but in other statements and legal filings has created the impression that he still held the title after that time. This kind of ambiguity does not play well in a presidential campaign. Thus, the Romney people have just tried to avoid the issue. They have not developed, pre-emptively, an effective defense. Indeed, they are further hampered by Romney's reluctance to release more of his tax returns, which further creates the impression of a rich guy taking advantage of high-end loopholes and off-shore opportunities, all rather Bain-like, that are simply beyond the rest of us.
The Obama people sense Romney's vulnerabiilty on these issues - a vulnerability that had been revealed in the earlier Republican primary - and they have moved to attack what has not been protected.
To some degree, Obama is also following Sunzi's defensive advice: he is defending what Romney cannot attack: health insurance reform. Romney's offensive capability on this issue is obviously limited, given his own experience in Massachusetts.
Of course, the campaign is larger and more complex than these issues. But Sunzi does offer some insight into the strategic back and forth. Let's end with this passage (6.27):
Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.