Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review - Double Down: Game Change 2012

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, two of the political class's journalistic princes, have just released a sequel to Game Change, their bestselling account of the 2008 Presidential contest. In  Double Down - Game Change 2012 the two effort to make an otherwise lackluster race compelling, but their breezy narrative is not enough to save this follow-up from falling well short of its predecessor. Whereas the 2008 campaign had narrative to spare - the Obama/Clinton primary, McCain's rising-from-the-ashes run to the GOP nomination, Palin's mercurial rise (and fall), and a Wall Street meltdown less than 2 months before Election Day - a dull-as-dust Mitt Romney is asked to carry most of Double Down, to just the type of mediocre result you would expect. 

While the book starts with an 80 page framing section that re-introduces President Obama roughly two and a half years into his term, he disappears for the next 200, leaving the authors with the thin gruel of what passed for a contest to decide the President's challenger to fill the middle section of their book. What unfolds is the elevation and deflation of a series of anti-Romneys, from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain and even Donald Trump. Reading this section of Double Down merely serves to underscore what was apparent to anyone who followed the 2012 race closely - Romney was unloved by the establishment and the base alike, with the former trying in vain to recruit an alternative (Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour) and the latter shifting their allegiance among various flavors-of-the-month to stop Romney's selection. 

Romney's centrality to the narrative only serves to highlight how flawed he was as a candidate. His hold on the party's nomination was tenuous from the start and, had two of his rivals - Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum - had the financial wherewithal and even a modicum of political savviness - either could have taken Romney out; first, after Gingrich's blowout win in South Carolina and then, after Romney carpet bombed Gingrich into the Stone Age, after Santorum's three state sweep of Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado in early March. That Santorum, whose name is most closely associated with a graphic sex act and who had been drummed out of office by 18 points in 2006, wound up second in the primary fight tells you all you need to know about how weak the other competitors were. That he came close to beating Romney says even more. 

Indeed, the President and his team's surgical dissection of Romney could have been achieved by a halfway competent (and financed) Republican. All of Romney's shortcomings were on display in the primaries - his penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth, his petulance, and inability to connect with the concerns of ordinary Americans - there was simply no one to capitalize on them. In this way, Romney is best seen as an accidental nominee, the beneficiary of a historically weak field of competitors. This fact was apparent to the Obama team, who made a key strategic decision to swarm Romney with negative ads in the late spring and early summer while the Massachusetts Republican was cash strapped and unable to return fire. 

For someone who made his bones as a hyper-efficient CEO, Double Down effectively shows that Romney got the big things and the small things wrong. His failure to cultivate a strong and diverse small donor class bit him when the Obama ad onslaught hit in May and June and he was unable to tap higher dollar contributors who had already maxed out their giving. When the attacks on Romney's time at Bain Capital ensued, the Romney team was, in theory, prepared to respond, having set up a war room months before for just such a purpose, yet, when the first salvos were fired by the Democrats, Team Romney took six days to respond. Romney's unwillingness to release his tax returns only played into the Obama team's hand of painting him as an out-of-touch rich guy and when Romney's team released an ad in must-win Ohio a week before Election Day, the spot blew up in their faces because of its inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Other miscues failed political campaigning 101, from a lack of a coherent speechwriting team (the candidate's acceptance speech wasn't completed until the day of his coronation) to the fact that none of his staff went through a transcript of the President's statement the day after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, which, had anyone bothered to do so, would have resulted in Romney avoiding getting shivved during the second Presidential debate. 

Other nuggets simply reinforce, to paraphrase Michelle Obama, that running for President does not change who you are, it reveals who you are. In Romney's case, that he was a core-less phony with no political instincts. When a book like Romney's No Apology lands on the New York Times best seller list due to a high volume of bulk sales (a way to artificially inflate the book's popularity), the Times connotes this with a "dagger" symbol next to the book's title. In Romney's case, the volume of bulk sales was so great they used a double dagger. Other instances of Romney's tone deafness will sound more familiar to those who follow politics - his "corporations are people, my friend" riff, offer to bet $10,000 during a Republican debate, and installation of a "car elevator" in his Malibu mansion - all contributed to the public's negative perception of him. But what tied these threads together to sink Romney was the infamous "47 percent" comment he made surreptitiously at a closed-to-the-press fundraiser that did not surface until late in the campaign. In this one unguarded moment, Romney slit his own throat. His clumsy handling of the fallout merely cemented the rest of the narrative - not only was he an out-of-touch plutocrat, but he was running an amateur hour campaign that could not handle crisis communications. 

Left with a desultory general election campaign to report on, Halperin and Heilemann wisely chose to focus on a couple of set pieces - the two nominating conventions and the 1st Presidential debate. As to the former, the Romney camp's incompetence again shone through when they allowed Clint Eastwood on stage without a clue of what he was going to say (to disastrous results) while the President's convention was one home run after the other, surging him into a lead he would never come close to relinquishing except for a few perilous days after Romney's one bright spot occurs at the first Presidential debate. Of course, the impact of that evening is elevated in the book's telling - there is little other drama in the race - but for all the insider scoop that is offered, of Obama's self-doubt in the wake of that loss (splashed conveniently on the cover of New York magazine, where Heilemann is a reporter), the sleepless nights of debate prep, and even the inclusion of the verbatim "debate-on-a-page" talking points the President deployed, it all feels like much ado about nothing. Obama knee capped Romney with his "Please proceed, Governor" comment on Benghazi in the second debate and in the third, Obama pummeled a spooked Romney (unsurprisingly, the authors mention this last contest only in passing). Indeed, most polling conducted at the time suggested the tightening in the race that Romney's performance in Denver created had largely dissipated less than 10 days later. 

While the authors attempt to inject drama into those final weeks of the campaign, not only was there little actual movement in the polling, but the size and scope of Obama's victory was such that he could have lost Ohio and Pennsylvania and still won, which would have been the first time that happened since 1960. Indeed, the race's one media star, Nate Silver, is never referenced in the book, perhaps not a surprising omission in light of the fact that for all the sturm und drang that people like Halperin and Heilemann need to earn their living, it was Silver who nailed the electoral vote in all 50 states while pundits were fulminating about crowd counts, lawn signs and phantom late surges that never appeared. Little is said about the abject failure of Romney's own polling or get out the vote operations, both of which failed miserably while Obama's ran like well-oiled machines. And the book's post-mortem, which discusses the "coalition of the ascendent" that Obama re-cobbled together to win, feels out of context considering the authors spent no time discussing why it was that Romney got beaten so thoroughly among African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, women and young people. 

Of course, Halperin and Heilemann don't "do" policy in that way. People pay to read about intemperate remarks politicians make about one another in private (and there are plenty of those in the book), and as a "dishy" account of inside-the-Beltway drama, Double Down is without peer. Every petty rivalry, unguarded thought, and candidate insecurity is dutifully recorded, but aside from feeding the maw of inside-the-Beltway cable chatter and preaching to the choir of fellow reporters, D.C. lobbyists and political lifers in the nation's capital, the book has the weight of cotton candy. Odious statements by people like Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin are reported on through the campaign lens - of the harm they did to Romney - instead of what they were - reflective of a Republican party growing ever more hostile towards women's rights (nothing is said of the numerous state-level Voter ID laws that disproportionately impacted minority voters). Page after page pours forth about Joe Biden's propensity for gaffes, but meanwhile, the Veep is in on every major decision from the Recovery Act to withdrawing from Iraq and drawing down from Afghanistan. The authors gin up a lot of heat between Presidents Obama and Clinton, but the latter essentially steps into the former's shoes once Hurricane Sandy hits, doing more than twenty events in less than a week. 

As fluff, Double Down is as satisfying as Stay-Puft, but the sugar rush is fleeting. This is a book written by D.C. insiders for D.C. insiders and those of us who press our noses up against the window to peek inside to see how venal, trivial and small-minded our elected officials, their factotums and those who report on (and are part of) what Halperin and Heilemann call (without irony) "the freak show" act. In this respect, Double Down is a runaway success.

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