For months — years, perhaps — political junkies and bored randos waited with bated breath for the latest book by veteran journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Halperin and Heilemann’s new volume, “Double Down,” which tells the story of the 2012 election, is the sequel to their best-selling account of the 2008 election, “Game Change.” “Game Change” details the maverick-ish primary campaign of John McCain, the primary slugfest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the choice of Sarah Palin and the resulting fallout, and the hope-and-change-alicious general election. “Game Change” is fast-paced, entertaining and occasionally shocking, making the reader feel like an insider. In “Double Down,” Halperin and Heilemann attempt to recreate this energy, and, to some extent, succeed in doing so.
Halperin and Heilemann tried really hard. They conducted literally hundreds of interviews (most off the record) with the most connected people in politics; they combed newspaper clips and television footage; and they dug up just enough juicy tidbits to keep the book spicy. They were confronted with one confounding problem, however, one that “Double Down”’s reviewers were insistent on driving home: This was, put simply, a less interesting election.
It would be hard to imagine a comparably exciting modern election to the one from 2008. The first viable black candidate, the first viable female candidate, two serious primary fights, the crashing wave of the financial crisis and the media hurricane of Sarah Palin. 2008 was a repudiation of the establishment; it heralded the rise of the “coalition of the ascendant” (Hispanics, young people, Asians, African Americans, etc); and it reintroduced the concept of “hope” to a generation overcome with cynicism. 2012, on the other hand, saw the election of a tired and far less inspirational incumbent running almost entirely on the fact that he was more of a human being than his rival, the New England plutocrat who looked like he was born to be president — and acted just that entitled. Paul Ryan, radical though he may be, was far less entertaining than Sarah Palin. Barack Obama was likely never going to lose to a man perceived to be His Highness Richie Rich, and “Double Down” shows that Obama himself was well aware.
But, like I said, Halperin and Heilemann tried. They began by weaving their story with two separate strands — the Democratic electoral planning period and the Republican primary extravaganza. In the beginning, a gleeful Barack Obama locates his long-form birth certificate to deliver a long-deserved knockdown to Donald Trump. His strategists fret over his unpopularity and the potential of Republican operatives to raise boatloads of cash in the post-Citizens United world. They briefly consider replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton, though never too seriously, and it appears Obama was uninvolved. But mostly, they just watch bemused as Republican after Republican decides not to run.
On the Republican side of the story, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour and, regrettably, Sarah Palin, all decline to enter the fray. The polls then seesaw between Mitt Romney and a smorgasbord of increasingly wacky also-rans. Popping up and quickly falling down are Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. The bizarre pageant is the most entertaining part of the book, and Halperin and Heilemann illustrate this through a series of wildly entertaining scenes such as a hysterical Michele Bachmann, in true pageant queen form, sobbing, “They hate me! They hate me!”
In the end, though, it came down to Romney. Heading into the general election, the former Massachusetts moderate (rebranded heartless flip-flopper) (rebranded severe conservative) was consistently trailing Obama, and he couldn’t understand why. The authors illustrate how Romney sought over and over again the opportunity to remake himself, becoming more confident each time that this would tip the scales. Dogged by gaffes (such as the infamous “47 percent” comment), Romney crafted a series of comeback schemes, first with his vice-presidential pick, then with the Republican National Convention in storm-struck Tampa and finally with the presidential debates. The first two attempts failed; the third was nearly a success.
The dramatic climax of the book is the period of time after a surprisingly electric Romney destroys a wooden and sullen Obama in the first presidential debate. Romney’s months of preparation paid off, and the president appeared to falter for basically the first time. Obama’s aides sweated his loss, and Obama himself finally engaged in some self-reflection. In the end, though, he regained his composure, proceeded to trounce Romney in the next two debates, and handily won the election. To the period following the second debate, Halperin and Heilemann devote scarcely a dozen pages. With the aid of a less enthusiastic but no less numerous “coalition of the ascendant,” the silver-tongued Obama defeats his silver-spooned rival.
“Double Down” is just as well-sourced and well-written as “Game Change.” The authors indulge readers with the rhetoric of an insider — Obama is referred to as “44” throughout, Bill Clinton goes by “Big Dog” and the Michelle is “FLOTUS” — a tactic that allows for far more intimacy than most mainstream political journalism. The gods of elections gave Halperin and Heilemann lemons, and they made lemonade. “Double Down” only takes on a drier taste because last time Halperin and Heilemann were afforded the chance to make lemon meringue pie.