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Double Down: Game Change 2012

13 Feb 2014
Double Down: Game Change 2012 (2013)
By Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

A great deal of my early political interest as a teenager was stimulated by Theodore White's Making of the President series of books, for the elections of 1960 through 1976. I still have my original copy of the 1972 edition, and recently re-read the premier book covering John Kennedy's razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon.

The two Game Change books are nothing like the Making of the President books. Both are good in their own ways. White's series focused more on how the campaigns were shaped by the state of the nation and its people. He does not not have the deep inside information that the Game Change authors have, though he has some. The White approach is journalistic; the Halperin/Heilemann approach is for political junkies and would-be insiders. As a guy who studied journalism as an undergraduate and public affairs as a graduate student, both approaches work for me. Double Down has a lot of inside goodies that would make any political junkie salivate  such as early evidence that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's background is littered with pot holes overflowing with broken glass and rusty nails. He will never be president. More about that in a minute.

Most striking about this book is how its depiction of the Republican primaries differs from my memory of it. When we are in the middle of an event, time moves differently than when we are outside it. At the same time, I think the authors missed the essence of the Republican problem in this book. The authors are clearly, though not flagrantly, in favor of Obama over the Republicans, who they think are either lunatics or just not ready for prime time. They do a reasonable but not great job of holding their bias in check. That's a lot of generalities to toss out, so let me get specific.

The campaigns for the Republican nomination took place in the fall of 2011 as well as during the 2012 spring primary season, with almost more than a dozen debates going into the primary season, with Most of the candidates were dead in the water before the first caucus, Iowa, or the first primary, New Hampshire, although several held on. Why is this significant?

National Republican leadership recently set new rules for their 2016 primaries. The purpose of the rules is to cut the primary season short, to make sure that the nominee is chosen early and not picked apart by minor or losing candidates who don't mind sticking around to humiliate themselves, like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich. In the process they have caused a major rift with conservatives and libertarians who understand that the real goal is for establishment Republican to cut everyone else out.

If the Republican leadership had read Double Down closely, they would understand that the problem was not the primary season, because most candidates were effectively knocked out by the debates, partially or completely, before the primaries began. As a result almost all were gone before Super Tuesday, which from now one we will have to call Super-Duper Tuesday, because effectively it will be a national primary day.

Their plans to compress the primaries are for naught because the problem in 2012 was not the process  it was the candidates. In most dysfunctional organizations, the problem is almost always people, not process.

Back to the book. The list of inside goodies is endless. Spoiler alert! I'm going to list some of my favorites. If they sound interesting, just read the book. If you were alive and conscious in 2012, it will be a familiar and easy read.
  • Chris Christie seriously considered running, not because he wanted to, but because the public and private pressure to run was intense. He did not thinkg he was ready, but realized that he was facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unlike Obama in 2008, he held back.
  • Obama's campaign did indeed examine the possibility of replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton as vice president. Obama was not involved, and Biden was not told of his near miss (though he suspected): all the polling showed that Hillary would not help the re-election chances, so Joe was left alone.
  • Biden's and Obama's decisions to do a flip-flop in favor of gay marriage was an event coordinated carefully over several months. Even so, Biden jumped the gun because he was not kept in the loop by staff, so it did not go as planned.
  • Early on, the Bush family tried to recruit a number of senators and governors, folks like Ohio senator Rob Portman and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Daniels and his wife were lobbied hard; Laura Bush even called to reassure his wife that raising kids in the White House wasn't so bad., but to no avail. Daniels let his daughters veto it.
  • Michelle Bachman thought Sarah Palin was prettier than her, but resented intellectual comparisons between the her, a tax lawyer, and the moose hunter.
  • Jon Huntsman floundered partly because his campaign strategy was based on the premise that family money would kick in. Jon Huntsman Senior, is the founder and and chairman of Huntsman Chemical  among other things, he got rich designing and making the boxes for Big Macs. He is believed to be worth several times more than Romney, but as it turned out, neither Junior nor Senior had the cash flow to fund the campaign, and it died for lack of oxygen. When questioned, Huntsman refused to call himself a conservative, which made him the kind of guy the Bushes have their eyes on. In 2016, with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie out of the running, Huntsman may well be the most viable Republican moderate in the campaign  if he runs and if he can get better traction in the primaries.
  • Mitt Romney vetted, or tried to vet, five men as candidates for vice president  Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman, and Marco Rubio. He wanted Christie so badly that in his second pass through the collected information, he tried to ignore the fact that Christie had supplied almost none of the information requested, and refused to supply more. Missing were key financial documents, legal disclosures, government documents, and medical records. Romney's chief Christie vetter, Mark Nielsen compiled a list of ten major questions unanswered by Christie. Keep in mind that this was before Christie's re-election last year. Nielsen concluded that if Christie had run for president, he would have been so damaged by the disclosures against him that he could not have stood for re-election as governor.
  • Obama won. He was not confident of victory until after the last debate. From the beginning he was worried about the deluge of money going into Republican Super PACs.
Later during the fall campaign, Obama and Romney struggled with their debate preparations, though in different ways. Double Down describes their travails in considerable detail, almost none of which became public during the campaign. The preparations, and the candidates' handling of them, tell us more about both men than any other study. Read the book if only for this study, but you will be amazed at the other things you learn along the way.

If you care about the presidency and its elections, read this book. 4.5 stars.

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