Campaign 2016 and the gentle art of 'political jujitsu'

How Hillary Clinton turned the marathon Benghazi hearings against her attackers, just by listening, and other canny twists.

Evan Vucci/AP/file
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens during marathon testimony before the House Benghazi Committee on Oct. 22, 2015.

“Political jujitsu”: The art of taking an opponent’s criticism and turning it against them.

The presidential campaign has reached the stage in which this phrase is likely to surface more often, as candidates increasingly turn on each other to try to gain a pre-primary edge.  Like several other expressions – “Kabuki theater,” “zugzwang” and “Borked” come to mind – “political jujitsu” has endured because it’s both exotic-sounding and fun to say.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) recently challenged his Texas GOP colleague Ted Cruz’s hard-line positions on immigration by arguing that Senator Cruz, during the 2013 debate over the issue in the Senate, had expressed some openness about permitting illegal immigrants to remain in the country with legal status. That led National Review’s Washington editor, Eliana Johnson, to observe on NPR: “Rubio has pulled off a bit of political jujitsu in opening Cruz up to an attack from his right, which is particularly threatening for a candidate like Cruz, who is staking his campaign on uniting the conservative grassroots against the Republican establishment.”

A few months earlier, Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin also applied the expression to Rubio for blasting Donald Trump at one of the debates, instead of waiting for the notoriously name-calling Trump to unload on him. “It was a bit of political jujitsu that cheered many conservatives who have had enough of Trump,” Rubin wrote.

Meanwhile, in previewing Hillary Clinton’s marathon October appearance before the House Benghazi panel, The Hill’s Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes called it a chance for the Democratic front-runner “to perform some political jujitsu, turning Republican attacks to her advantage with independent and left-leaning voters.”

And when Clinton gave her official campaign launch speech in June, Washington Post liberal columnist E. J. Dionne noted that she struck back against GOP rivals’ criticisms of her age – 67 at the time – and her association with the 1990s. He held up the speech as “an occasion for her brand of political jujitsu. Clinton’s Republican foes cast her as the candidate of the past, but it was the GOP, she insisted, whose ideas come from long ago and far away. Her Beatles reference—‘They believe in yesterday’—may have been corny, but it made her point.”

But the term doesn’t just come up in presidential politics. Writing in Politico, Alan Greenblatt analyzed the House Freedom Caucus, the chamber’s bloc of ultra-conservatives who have established themselves as a potent force. “The Freedom Caucus, rather than breaking from Republican ranks, has forced Republican leaders to break from them,” he wrote. “It’s a perverse sort of political jujitsu.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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