Double Down: Game Change 2012, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Penguin, 2013, 512 pages, C$31.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-594-20440-1

In an age of twitter-sized text bites, continuous news cycle and fragmented constituencies, there is something to be said for long-form narratives that seek to explain months of events and incidents.  This goes double for attempts to describe something as complex as a presidential campaign.  Following in the footsteps of their vastly entertaining Game Change (which tackled the 2008 presidential campaign, with a focus on the Obama/Clinton primary challenges and the impact of Sarah Palin on the campaign), Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have spent much of 2011 and 2012 following the main players involved in the 2012 American presidential campaign, and Double Down is an attempt to weave what they’ve learned into a coherent narrative.

The biggest problem with the 2012 campaign, of course, is that it was a fairly dull affair: Barack Obama went into the contest with the advantages of the incumbency, while Mitt Romney was seen as the least-objectionable pick from an uninspiring selection of candidates from a Republican party fractured between the older establishment and the extreme tea-partiers.  Save for a lopsided first debate that temporarily upset expectations, the campaign had few dramatic moments.  By the time November rolled around, the only people claiming a close election were media outlets hyping up their viewership number and the Romney campaign itself.  Watching the results at home, I knew enough about the possible swing-states to be able to call the election for Obama roughly three minutes before CNN did.

As a political junkie, I’m the natural audience for a book such as Double Down… even though I spent much of 2012 a step removed from American politics, preoccupied with a brand-new baby at home.  And while I may have opened this review with lofty goals of narrative-making, let’s be honest: I read book such as Double Down to get pieces of gossip, new revelations and an idea of what I’d missed from the usual open sources of information.

As it turns out, Double Down is most interesting when it does delve into what I’d missed: Mostly the early stages of the Republican nomination process, as promising candidates decide (or are strongly encouraged) to sit out the 2012 election cycle.  This, improbably, opened up the field for Romney, who managed to remain the least-terrible alternative after a succession of other would-be nominees flamed out early on.  The look behind the scenes of those failed contenders is often fascinating, and perhaps more affecting than the winning campaigns: I never thought I’d feel a bit of sympathy for Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry, but seeing them struggles with (respectively) debilitating migraines and post-operative back pain is enough to remind you that for all the overheated partisan rhetoric, these are still real people running for office. 

Amusingly, the authors also have to contend with their own precedent in writing Double Down: Parts of Chapter 3 are spent describing the White House’s dealing with the authors, while one of the most hilarious anecdotes of the book has VP nominee Paul Ryan trying to calm down before his major convention speech by watching… the HBO movie adaptation of Game Change, focusing on the shortcomings of his predecessor Sarah Palin.  Fortunately, the book itself is not perceptibly biased, save for siding with the winner and being harsher on the losers: While Obama is criticized for his failings as a contemplative president and as a reluctant candidate, Romney gets worse by being described as a curiously ambivalent candidate, one that maybe didn’t want the presidency enough.

The authors have a knack for creating a compelling narrative (even though their vocabulary often runs wild, along with their tendency toward nicknames or metonymy) and the book is a joy to read, although a good background in American national politics is required before making sense of most details.  Still, it’s worth remembering that Halperin and Heilemann are part of the old-school of journalism.  Never mind the off-handed (and faintly reprobate) mentions of social media (and even, just Twitter –never Facebook!) as if it was just a fringe phenomenon: this mentality leads to a few curious omissions in what is otherwise a complete account of the campaign. 

For instance, while nothing made me smile wider than seeing the author dismiss Ron Paul as a man whose “radical libertarianism, out-front isolationism, and just plain kookiness— from his abhorrence of paper money to his ties to the John Birch Society — made him more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee”, Paul did earn more votes during the primaries than many other candidates described at length during the book.  I suspect that access has to do with this snide dismissal: that is, if the authors were rebuffed by the Paul campaign, then they found nothing interesting to say about him.  Far more troubling is Double Down’s refusal to mention Nate Silver even once.  Silver, as you may recall, was the most visible of the web-based statistical pundits who uniformly predicted an Obama victory, even as the traditional media was still creating a smokescreen of uncertainty over the election.  Also significant is the lack of discussion about the Romney campaign’s ORCA IT problems, which may have led to a false sense of confidence in the final weeks of the campaign in a supposedly data-centric organization.  Those stories were well-covered in the days immediately after the election, and it seems curious that they don’t even rate a mention even as figures who played no part in the election such as Haley Barbour rate pages of anecdotes.  (And let’s not even mention Chris Christie, who should consider sending copies of this book to registered Republicans in anticipation of his 2016 run… or not.)

And this brings us to my original assessment of Game Change, which holds true for Double Down as well: It’s become a quadrennial gossip rag for the political set.  Data, infrastructure, trends and strategy aren’t nearly as important in Double Down as screaming, shouting, money problems and dramatic narration.  That’s to necessarily a bad thing, as long as readers understand that this is political reporting as entertainment.  Insight will come from elsewhere.

Is it any surprise that a movie adaption has already been announced?

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