Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann is a guilty pleasure for me. This is not something that I would normally read, nor is it a book that I would usually blog about. In fact, I even considered not putting up a post about it. Though I would describe myself of something of a political junkie, I never read books on current or political events (but I do read lots of articles and opinion pieces). As there is so much to read and so little time to do it in, I try to keep my reading of books confined to what I consider universal and timeless themes. Thus, this book constitutes a bit of “light reading.” Kind of like my Fifty Shades of Grey (OK, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration:))
I just could not resist this one however. Having read and enjoyed these authors’ previous Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime that covered the 2008 American Presidential election, I just had to delve into this foray on the 2012 contest. Both Halperin and Heilemann are pundits commonly scene on various American Public affairs programs. I must first comment that there is a stereotype that such programs are teeming with over opinionated talking heads propagandizing and/or yelling at each other. While such nonsense is indeed common, there are also plenty of programs, both on television and on the radio, that fly under the radar, where adults discuss, analyze and at times calmly debate issues. It is these types of programs that these particular authors frequent.
This work is not about policy or substantive issues, instead it is about the art, perhaps better described as warfare, of politics. This book is almost entirely dedicated to the tactics and strategy of winning elections. Policies and ideologies are not judged here. To the extent that they are analyzed, it is done so in the context of how they effect elections. There is also a great emphasis on the personalities of both the candidates and the political operatives involved in the campaigns.
All the candidates, potential candidates and campaigns are put under the microscope. This includes not just the Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s operations, but most of the Republican primary participants including Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman and their respective campaigns are scrutinized. The book is wonky and is filed with all sorts of details regarding the foibles and triumphs of its subjects.
A key issue concerning a book like this is credibility. Every page is packed with information concerning conversations, strategy decisions, incidents, etc. that relate to the campaigns. There are mountains of really bad books concerning recent American politics out there. If it turned out that the authors included unverified or sketchy information the work becomes useless. Thus I would not read a book like this unless I knew a little about and researched a bit into its writers’ reliability.
Based my knowledge gleamed from television programs, articles, as well as some online research, I do think that these writers have played it mostly straight and honest. For both this work as well as the first Game Change, Halperin and Heilemann conducted hundreds of first hand interviews. They also amassed numerous first had sources such as emails, memos, recording, etc. The authors’ research seems to have been thorough and scrupulously involved a lot of double - checking. In addition, as someone who follows American politics and its controversies closely, it amazes me how little denials or rebuttals have been made by the subjects of these two books, even from those whom the authors’ have been relatively hard upon (I must point out that there are a few exceptions to this. However I think a work filled with this much information about such controversial topics must inevitably draw some fire. Sarah Palin was extremely critical of her portrayal in the movie version of the first Game Change Book, though a little less so regarding the book. The entire movie thing really muddles the issue as I think that the film did display bias that the book did not. The film also only covered a small portion of the book, specifically the part about Palin. As for that book, I thought that it actually painted a mostly sympathetic portrait of Palin.) Furthermore, these authors show no discernable bias for or against particular parties or ideologies.
This book exhibits an interesting mix of cynicism and idealism. It is cynical in that it unsentimentally portrays a political world of bare knuckles brawling where all the stops are pulled out and little quarter is given. Almost all the participants are at times portrayed as doing questionable things. Furthermore, the influence of billionaires on American politics is shown to be pervasive and ubiquitous. All sides and candidates are shown to be unabashedly and openly dependent upon one faction or another of the super rich. The only good news in this respect is that the billionaires are not monolithic. There seems to be a group of billionaires that advocates for just about every position, including a few that want to reduce the influence of billionaires!
Deep down however, it seems that Halperin and Heilemann are oddly idealistic. Just as the authors show politicians as flawed people, no one is demonized. Instead, the players are depicted to be people who believe. Almost without exception, all the participants, despite their warts, are humanized. Personalities of all those concerned are delved into in complex ways. Indeed, we are often confronted with overinflated egos, but this self - aggrandizement is based on a belief on the part of the egotistical, that they have amazing abilities to ultimately do good.
Other times we see that these politicians will compromise smaller ideals for the good of the bigger picture and are thus accused of doing anything to get elected. There is truth to this, but a certain amount of compromise is also shown to be necessary. However, in the end, the name of the game is getting ideas implemented. Of course, this can be seen as a hunger for power, which, I think, is just another way of looking at it. The bottom line is that while plenty bad points of all the participants are revealed, so is a surprising nobility and virtue that manifests itself in both sides.
I must point out that I find Halperin and Heilemann’s writing technique to often be poor. The book often alternates between various campaigns and at times the voice of the book takes on the attitude and tone of the point of view of the particular campaign it is focusing on. Thus, for instance, when writing about the Obama campaign the prose will sound biased and dismissive of Obama’s opponents. Conversely, when the focus shifts towards the Romney campaign, the opposite tone is assumed and the prose becomes biased and dismissive of Obama. Though the authors are scrupulously fair about this, I find this awkward and inappropriate.
At other times the tone of the book is over the top snarky and filled with colloquialisms and slang that make the work seem sophomoric. This is a pity since this dilutes what in many ways is a fine chronicle of historical events.
For instance, at one point when explaining how many of his supporters felt Romney was falling behind, the authors write,
“For many members of the Republicans smarty pants set, one thing was clear: Romney needed a game changer”
Similarly, when describing how at one point Obama’s team were considering what they believed to their own bleak prospects,
“The economy was still dreadful. And more then two thirds of voters thought the country was on the wrong track – which if history was a guide, meant that he was hosed.”
Though it is clear that the writers were trying to liven up the narrative and make the book fun, the above just does not work for me in a work such as this.
Despite its flaws, I must admit that I could not put this book down. I am so easily enticed by a work filled with all sorts of insider information relating to American politics and the personalities that drive it. If one is expecting either side to be excoriated or glorified one will need to look elsewhere. Readers who absolutely despise pure political strategy will find this book frustrating but informative. For those very interested in American politics, and who are looking for hard, but at times refreshing truths, this is a very informative and entertaining read.