In an excerpt from their new book, Double Down, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin—the duo behind the enormously juicy and successful Game Change—prove that they are extremely good at reporting catchy details. The excerpt, which is running in this week’s New York magazine at nearly 7000 words, doesn’t just have fun nuggets and compelling quotes; the piece is full of entire scenes of newly reported interactions and engaging conversations. I haven’t read the book, but Jonathan Martin’s piece on it in The New York Times last week was certainly brimming with interesting tidbits. And yet, if the excerpt is anything to go by, Heilemann and Halperin’s analysis is not as impressive as their reporting. Indeed, the entire story has the unintended effect of showing how minor—at least in terms of deciding elections—their thoroughly reported details actually are.
The piece is framed around one very intriguing headline: “The 24 Hours Barack Obama Almost Threw His Reelection Away.” Even if we allow for the fact that headlines almost always oversell pieces, this one does give an accurate flavor of their argument, and also accurately describes their general analytical approach to politics. Thus, elections are not decided by voter turnout, or the economy, or the so-called “fundamentals”; rather, they depend on will and political skill—in this case Barack Obama’s. Of course the president could have thrown away the election by, say, robbing a bank or sleeping with a college student; but the Heilemann/Halperin theory is that he almost threw it away by acting grumpy at debate preparation, and thus risking a poor performance in the second presidential debate.
The story begins after the first debate in Denver, where Mitt Romney by all accounts destroyed Obama and gave his (Romney’s) limping candidacy some sort of boost. Obama’s performance became obsessively and absurdly overblown by the media immediately after the debate finished, but it’s true that Romney was more impressive. As the authors write, “The wind and weather of the campaign shifted in something like a heartbeat. The challenger was surging. The polls were tightening.” Nevertheless, they report, Obama had a good day of prep for the second debate. And then:
In Sunday night’s run-through, the president seemed to be relapsing: The disengaged and pedantic Obama of Denver was back. In the staff room, his two closest advisers, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, watched on video monitors with a mounting sense of unease—when, all of a sudden, a practice round that had started out looking merely desultory turned into the Mock From Hell.
There is not just the debate “from Hell.” There is the “metastazing panic” of supporters, the “absurdity and horror of the circumstances,” the “mortified” advisors, the “creepy” performance at one rehearsal. Some of these descriptions come from Obama’s people but it’s also clear that Heilemann and Halperin believe that the overheated language and sheer panic were justified.
Is there evidence to back up the mounting worry that Obama was letting the election slip away? Not really. What’s bizarre, and what keeps undercutting the story’s tension, is the occasional acknowledgement that things really were not that bad:
“Did Barack Obama just throw the entire election away?” blared the title of an Andrew Sullivan blog post. Chicago’s internal polling strongly suggested that the answer was no—the race was back to where it had been following the party conventions, with Obama holding a three- or four-point lead.
But Heilemann and Halperin just keep going merrily on their way. Similarly, when discussing one Obama advisor who had worked for Kerry, they note, “In [Ron] Klain’s career as a debate maestro, he had been involved in successes (Kerry over Bush three times in a row)…” This comment isn’t followed up with any analysis, and thus Bush’s lack of a recovery in the second and third debates is passed over, even though it didn’t cost him re-election. It isn’t that Heilemann and Halperin hide the evidence that presidential elections don’t necessarily turn on debates performances, or how tough Obama was going to be in debate #2; but they don’t let those other things that do matter, whatever they are, alter their analysis.
One other shortcoming is their discussion of why Obama was so bad in debate #1. In a very impressive bit of reporting, they quote Obama speaking to close aides as follows (they clearly agree with Obama's words):
“I’m a lawyer, and I want to argue things out. I want to peel back layers. When I get a question, I go right to the logical.” You ask me a question about health care. There’s a problem, and there’s a response. Here’s what my opponent might say about it, so I’m going to counteract that. Okay, we’re gonna talk about immigration. Here’s what I’d like to say—but I can’t say that. Think about what that means. I know what I want to say, I know where my mind takes me, but I have to tell myself, No, no, don’t do that—do this other thing. It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently. I’m left-handed; this is like you’re asking me to start writing right-handed."
This really wasn't the problem in the first debate. The problem was more that Obama was not "arguing things out." He wasn't "peeling back layers." He wasn't showing the "logical" flaws in Romney's answers. He wasn't "dissecting" anything, let alone big arguments. He was, rather, lackadaisical and bored-looking. (To their credit, Heilemann and Halperin spend a good bit of time on his distaste for politics, which comes across as some combination of admirable and tiresome). Again, getting Obama's comments is a major coup, but the authors can't quite figure out how to integrate it into their analysis.
It's true that if political reporters eschewed juicy details and things such as staff rivalries, we wouldn't have campaign books—except for those that would presumably be written by political scientists. But at some level Heilemann and Halperin must know that elections are not decided by the ins and outs of debate preparation. Choosing to ignore this makes for very enjoyable reading, even if the book doesn't add up to much.