Monday, December 16, 2013

"Double Down" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann: A Review

Mitt [Romney] believed that the nation had made a mistake, but he didn't fee deflated. The voters chose to double down, he thought. That's their right. He was grateful to have had the national platform that his father dreamed of but never achieved. Who would have ever guessed that a kid with skinny legs from Cranbrook School would get to run for president and speak to the entire country? I got a chance to say the things I wanted to say.

Obama and his people saw Romney as pure ambition. In truth, Mitt was about as ambivalent as any nominee in modern history. He had left a good life to run, and a good life awaited him back at Fin de la Senda when he was finished. In the course of the campaign, he created endless problems for himself but rarely addressed them with pull-out-all-the-stops urgency or last-dog-dies determination. The one weakness he did try to combat was the perception that he was a flip-flopper; but in refusing to deviate an iota from his 2008 positions, he generated fiercer headaches and harsher headlines. He allowed Chicago to define him as a heartless plutocrat without offering an alternative image. . . . As that perception took hold during the campaign, his attitude toward it seemed to be, Oh, well, Mitt happens. (467-468)

Compared to 2008, the Presidential election of 2012, in my view, was much more interesting pairing two very opposite candidates with neither having the aura of Messiah, but was at the same time, one of the strangest in modern history. In my assessment, it came down to this: President Barack Obama was an incompetent incumbent who ran a very good and competent campaign. Governor Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was a competent candidate who ran a very ineffectual, incompetent campaign. And that, for the most part, seems to be the conclusion of the best-selling book Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

As the subtitle hints at, this is the follow up to their post-2008 campaign best-seller Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and the Palins, and the Race of a Lifetime and one can only assume this will become a series. I did not invest in reading the first book because the first race, I felt, was uninteresting (McCain was a terrible candidate who ran a terrible campaign and was up against a terrible candidate who portrayed himself as Messiah) and not worth my time. 2012 was a different story.

If there ever was a candidate that looked and acted the part of President but never became one, Mitt Romney would be that man. After his caucus win (or so we thought) in Iowa, I sat in front of my television screen and tried to envision Mitt Romney as President. My conclusion was simple: at the very least, he looks like one. And he did. But he came up far too short.

2012 was supposed to be the year a Republican took the White House. President Obama was an unpopular President and outside of the execution of Osama bin Laden, little was going his way. His signature achievement led to his "shulacking" in 2010 and most pundits assumed it would lead to his own downfall. This is where Halperin and Heilemann begin and for hopeful Republicans, this is what makes this story so tragic. Obama's first term was more like Jimmy Carter's than any other President and modern history. Yet in spite of that, they still could not beat him.

The authors walk the reader step by step through the campaign. Yet what makes this such an attractive book isn't that it merely chronicles the campaign as the rest of the country saw it through the media, but the authors take us behind the scenes. For example, when Clint Eastwood gave his strange and, in many ways, wildly entertaining speech at the national convention, the Romney campaign were anything but thrilled. The authors report one leading staffer excusing himself in order to throw up.

Other behind-the-scene tidbits abound. Like who leaked to the press damaging stories about Herman Cain's sexual exploits or Rick Perry's racist rock? The answer is not what we all assumed. The book argues that Romney's nomination come's down simply to a number of things. First, he was lucky. No doubt the Republican field was weak. No one seriously considered Michelle Bauchmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, or the others as President (with the exception of Rick Perry). Furthermore, all of the more serious challengers either did not run or ran extremely ineffectual campaigns. Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie (a story himself), Paul Ryan, and other viable candidates that would have posed a serious challenge to Romney refused to run for their own respective reasons leaving Romney to fend off lesser candidates (a task he struggled with).

President Obama's strategy was simple. Gone were the days of "Hope and Change" replaced by negative ads and defining Romney early. Chicago's strategy to paint Romney as a blood-sucking vampire early in the campaign might have sunk Romney. Boston's problem throughout was their inability to defend their candidate against such endless, senseless, baseless attacks (and there were many) all the while preventing others and making a strong case for Romney. In a word, Romney played it too safe. At times he ran only against Obama and not for himself. He lived in constant fear of "taking his eye off the economic ball" and appearing to be a flip-flopper. Romneycare was a constant problem. Their strategy was weak and at times their execution was weaker. Again, Romney might have been competent, but his campaign was anything but.

Overall, this was a great book I enjoyed immensely. It is a reminder just what a cutthroat game politics is. If you can get by all of the f-bombs (so common away from the cameras), there is little to complain here. The authors are great writers who grab the readers attention from the very beginning and never let it go. Any American remotely interested in Presidential politics will find this to be worth your time and investment. And who knows, maybe HBO will do another movie on it. I wonder who will play Romney?

For more:
The First Interview: Romney Post-Election
Post-Election 2012: How Romney Lost
"The Choice 2012": A Documentary
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