After watching “The Donald” in the first Republican Presidential debates of 2016, I decided to reread two books written by political columnists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The first, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, tells the story of the 2008 presidential race. The second, Double Down: Game Change 2012 tells the story of the 2012 Presidential race.
Both books are extremely readable, engaging, amusing and insightful. Halperin and Heilemann had access to sources inside both campaigns in 2008 and 2012. With their extensive access, the authors pull back the curtain on the inner workings of a campaign revealing flubs, gaffs and conflicts that may not have made it into the media.
The 2008 Democratic nomination was marked by a bitter tête à tête between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. One thing that was known about the Clinton campaign was that one of her greatest resources and handicaps was her husband Bill. Halperin and Heilemann reveal Hillary had advisers “dedicated to managing the threat posed by Bill’s libido.” Barack Obama, less experienced, would commit his own gaffs such as his remark in Pennsylvania “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” We also mustn’t forget John Edwards, the third candidate. Edwards did well for a while but flamed out after it was revealed he was having an affair with a woman named Rielle Hunter. Ultimately, Obama would win the Democratic nomination.
But, let’s face it, what most people remember about the 2008 Presidential campaign was Sarah Palin, the Republican VP pick. According to Halperin and Heilemann, the vetting process for Palin was rushed and flawed. Proper background checks were not done and important questions remained unanswered. This rush to vet Palin for VP would dog the McCain campaign till the end. Palin knew little about current world events and argued with her campaign staff. Her poor performance in interviews, Katie Couric comes to mind, she blamed on poor preparation by staff. According to Heilemann and Halperin, Palin was lackadaisical about prep work laid out by her staff. Her desire to do things her own way was also sometimes at variance with the decisions made within the McCain campaign.
Game Change was made into a TV movie in 2012 starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, and Ed Harris as John McCain. A great retelling of the book, the actors do a superb job of portraying the real characters. Personally, I think Julianne Moore’s performance stole the show. The Palin accent and mannerism are truly superb.
Double Down begins with a review of Obama’s time in office since 2008. He had difficulties with the economy, congress and others factors that made his first term difficult. While he was the Democratic nominee for President, his difficulties ensured that his Presidential run would not be smooth. The book then goes on to detail the fun and games of the Republican Nomination race. While the 2012 election had no Sarah Palin, the Republican candidates did all they could to fill the hole her departure created. From Herman Cain’s 999 plan to Rick Perry’s oops and Newt Gingrich’s meteoric rise and then flaming crash, all provided excellent fodder for pundits and comedy writers. Heilemann and Halperin go behind the scenes and describe the events that actually caused some of these mistakes. Such as Rick Perry’s major back surgery that caused him considerable pain and made him sleeping poorly.
Perhaps the strangest thing was Mitt Romney’s inability to clinch the Republican nomination quickly despite the fact that he was the most likely candidate. Heilemann and Halperin go into Romney’s difficulty here as well. Romney was perceived as wooded and out of touch with the average voter. His efforts to make him seem one of the people weren’t helped when he was recorded saying 47% of Americans don’t pay tax and that my job isn’t to help those people. He made this statement to a large room full wealthy backers and potential backers.
When the battle between Obama and Romney started, it was not at all clear Obama was going to be the inevitable victor. His poor performance in the first debate and the problem of the economy plagued his campaign. The book reveals that pre debate session with Obama do not go well. Obama consistently came off as professorial and became caustic and sarcastic in debate prep. These tendencies were finally reined in just before the second debate. Obama won handily in the second debate and went on to win the election.
Both books are incredibly fun reads and if you’re looking for something to spice up things when you’re not watching CSPAN these are great choices.