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December 12, 2013

Book proves democracy unpure

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — Four years ago Mark Halperin and John Heilemann published the best-selling book, Game Change, an inside look at the 2008 presidential race. It was a fascinating description of what went on behind the scenes to make or break the candidates. It is not surprising that the two authors joined forces again to write a sequel for 2012.

Their effort this time around produced Double Down: Game Change 2012 which surprisingly ended up being even more intriguing than 2008. The last time around we had both major political parties involved in mad scrambles for their parties’ nominations. We also had the spectacle of the first-ever African American presidential nominee and a lightening-rod political newcomer for vice-president. But somehow the 2012 contest provided a better narrative.

Perhaps it’s because the contest was always in doubt. In 2008 Barack Obama rode a wave of excitement while John McCain constantly battled from behind. The election appeared to be a foregone conclusion. In 2012 Obama was a known figure with a record that was open to criticism. The Republicans’ choice, Mitt Romney, emerged as a battered but successful nominee from a vicious primary fight who never doubted he would win the general election.

Unless you lived in a cave somewhere the book obviously provides no suspense as to the outcome of the race but the frantic pace and in-fighting among the campaign organizations are illuminating. Anyone who thinks that truth, honesty, and integrity are the surest paths to victory has never been involved in a political campaign.

The best way to read Double Down is to suspend your own personal political beliefs and party affiliations and just base your opinions on personality, character, and how the candidates present themselves. You can then understand why Obama is currently dropping in the poles, Romney is seen as a sore loser, and Congress has an approval rating of nine percent.

Despite Romney’s business acumen and political experience as governor of Massachusetts and as a presidential candidate in 2008, he suffered from foot-in-mouth disease. No matter how hard his campaign tried to prepare him he became a gaffe machine. Sometimes it seemed like he survived the primary fight only because he had fewer gaffes than his opponents.

The biggest one occurred at a private fundraiser that he didn’t think was being recorded (in this day and age a candidate should never think that). Romney basically described the 47 percent of the citizens who don’t pay federal income taxes as mooching off the rest of us. That “47 percent” comment probably cost him the election.

Meanwhile, Obama was vulnerable for several reasons. His signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was under siege from the moment it passed. The economy and the rest of his agenda sputtered along because the Republicans were doing nothing to help him. Worst of all, he maintained a blasé attitude towards the campaign and the debates. He felt like they were beneath him.

Obama’s first debate performance was a complete disaster as he looked like someone who was out of touch and bored with his job. Romney came across as someone who was excited and knew what he was doing. The contrast was striking and took what appeared to be a certain Obama victory and turned the contest into a toss-up.

Reading about the two campaigns and their efforts to keep their candidates on the straight and narrow was both fascinating and comical at the same time. If episodes of elitism or gaffes didn’t intrude on operations there were always dimwitted surrogates and staff infighting to drag down the candidates and their message.

The one overriding negative was the unimaginable amount of money thrown into the ring. Considering how many people in this country struggle to make ends meet it’s unconscionable to see literally billions of dollars wasted on influencing the outcome. At least one campaign commercial aired 16,000 times. It’s unlikely the Founding Fathers ever expected political campaigns to devolve into such slimy, expensive affairs.

In the end Halperin and Heilemann showed that our democracy is far from pure. Political campaigns are all about winning, and competence, integrity, and spending restraints don’t enter the lexicon. Double Down is a very funny, entertaining, and disturbing read that provides us with lessons we never learned in a civics class.