Sunday, July 21, 2013

Game Change

I recently got around to reading Game Change, the book about the 2008 Presidential election by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

First off, yes, I realize that this is probably about four years too late. I have a particular fascination with election books, starting with the Theodore White Making of the President series through the various accounts written by Jules Whitcover in the 80's and 90's. Game Change serves as the flagship book for 2008, and rightfully so.

It's important to note that much of the talk about this book--in addition to the HBO movie that was made--focused on Sarah Palin. While the book has one of the few in-depth examinations of her selection as vice president, the book only devotes about two chapters out of twenty-three to Palin. The first half of the book is about the primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the last four or five chapters deal mostly with the general campaign.

At this point, there aren't many surprises about the campaign, but I thought it would be notable to make a few points:

  • Everyone pretty much comes out as an asshole. Granted, politics tends to bring out the assertive Type A personalities that tend to come off as assholes, but I was a little shocked about exactly how bad everyone was. Hillary Clinton came off as an entitled sourpuss. Obama comes off as a self-righteous jerk. John McCain as a violent hothead. John Edwards was a horny, delusional cad, Elizabeth Edwards an opportunistic crybaby. (Yes, that's factoring her cancer and philandering husband into account.) Joe Biden seems like a self-important blowhard, and Bill Clinton actually comes out as a hands-down, four-alarm gigantic asshole above and beyond his well-known problems. And this doesn't even account for all the little-known campaign staffers with huge egos more than willing to let petty personal issues derail a campaign.
  • Oddly, two people come out pretty good. Joe Lieberman seems like a nice guy, if a bit bewildered; and Palin just comes across as ill-prepared and more than a touch naive, but at least at first seemed to be a level-headed if starstruck choice. It's only when there's blood in the water that the starts digging in and striking back against her opponents as she tried to go into survival mode. 
  • While most people will read for the Palin story (see below), the more fascinating tale is the Obama vs. Clinton. It's pretty clear that more voters really wanted Clinton, at least at first, but the number of senators who effectively stabbed Hillary Clinton in the back to back Obama is staggering, especially given how nearly all of said senators owed Bill for their jobs. A lot of behind-the-scenes trickery also played a good part. Clinton, for her part, showed some signs of obtuseness and elected to ignore some major warning signs, assuming that simply being a Clinton would be enough to not have to worry about the details. 
  • For those who do not know, the main controversy in the book is McCain's selection process for the vice presidency. The McCain campaign knew well in advance that the choice would have to be controversial, and had for an alarmingly long time placed all of their bets on choosing Lieberman: A lifelong Democrat on the national Republican ticket would have been a huge deal. However, a mere week before it was announced, McCain got cold feet (and the response from the hard right when the info was leaked was a warning rocket) and decided against it. However, that left a long list of completely conventional picks, such as Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, and McCain knew it would have to be someone else. Despite a flirtation with Michael Bloomberg, the campaign came up with the name Sarah Palin. So in about three days Palin was not even on the list to being announced to the public, a situation where she was ill-prepared. When she stumbled, the public latched on, and her stereotype as a lightweight cemented, she never had a chance. 
  • McCain's avowed ignorance over economic matters more or less doomed him. He tried to paper over this deficiency simply by pointing out the economic experts he'd have on hand, but he also displayed an alarming lack of comprehension as to what was going on. No one was an expert--not even Obama or George Bush or anyone; things were happening too fast--but McCain excelled in sounding particularly clueless. Two events: his proposal to cancel the first debate to hold an emergency financial meeting in DC, and his participation in a similar negotiation where he barely spoke while Obama owned the entire meeting.
  • In the end, after the 2008 recession began in earnest and the pink slips and bleeding statements showed concrete evidence of the magnitude of the disaster, no Republican ever had a chance. It's easy to blame McCain or Palin, but outside of a complete disaster for the Democratic nomination it was highly unlikely any Republican could win. Despite the Obama campaign's successful assertion that McCain would simply be a third term of Bush, if you had to pick a Republican that was least like Bush to nominate it would have been McCain. Of course, it is notable that the Democrats were reasonably close to nominating such a disaster in John Edwards, whose affairs and attempts to cover it up would have blown the race wide open. 
Some people have had issues with the citations in the book; the authors used the Bob Woodward style of writing of having all "deep background" sources. Still, it's telling that no one has really came out against any of the main assertions in the book (aside from Palin, who bristled at her portrayal).

I think books like this are important; they display the exact sort of detail of what happens during an election that you don't normally get to see or hear about at the time. People know full well that a similar story happened in 2012, and the pieces are being fitted together as we speak. Sadly, these types of books also are heavy on the no-name details of campaign staffing, which tend to bog the narratives down with unfortunately necessary details. While it is important that person X clashed with person Y, no one really cares, but it's necessary to explain why things happened the way they did. Especially in the early days of the campaign, when positions and power plays are being negotiated it can drag things down, and Game Change is no exception.

Still, at this point the book should be fairly easy to pick up, and I think it's an important enough accounting of the campaign that it should be read.

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