Game Change –> Game Over

Sarah Palin looks surprised. What's the matter, gurl?

By 11:30, it was over. All the major networks had announced that Barack Obama was going to be the winner. Shortly thereafter, his rival conceded in an awkward if apparently sincere statement. The election that had seemed like it would go on forever was finally at an end.

Fast-forward four years.

By 11:30, it was over. All the major networks had announced that Barack Obama was going to be the winner. Shortly thereafter, his rival conceded in an awkward if apparently sincere statement. The election that had seemed like it would go on forever was finally at an end.

The ends of Election Night ’08 and Election Night ’12 looked remarkably similar. The Democrat triumphed, propelled to victory by high youth turnout, clear majorities among all minorities and an outstanding get-out-the-vote mechanism. Even the aesthetics seemed the same: The energetic black former liberal defeating the wealthy white former moderate assisted by a radical young starling.

Yes, Obama did not take back the House, and perhaps he lacked his youthful glow and the energy that allowed him to triumph in 2008. But the overall results are largely familiar. Several successful ballot initiatives this time around (regarding gay marriage, marijuana and immigrants’ rights) reveal that momentum was on the side of the liberals — just as it was four years ago.

When the textbooks are written, the documents are archived and the elections of 2008 and 2012 are chronicled and dissected, what will we remember? To political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, how the sausage was made is just as interesting (and perhaps as historically relevant) as selecting your choice from a menu. In their widely acclaimed 2010 book “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime,” Halperin and Heilemann tell the story of the 2008 presidential race like you’ve never heard it before. Days after another historic election, it is useful to reflect on the important moments of the last election to fully understand the results of the present one.

“Game Change” tells a story that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. It chronicles the 2008 presidential election in scintillating detail, beginning with the primary battles and concluding with Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. It is divided into three parts: 1. The Democratic primary (Hillary vs. Obama, with a little Edwards thrown in for flavor); 2. The Republican primary (McCain triumphing early); and 3. The general election (including the selection of Palin).

The title of “Game Change” is based on the authors’ thesis that the 2008 election was largely shaped by a few “game-changing” moments — earth-shattering revelations that fundamentally altered the outcome of the election. These game-changing moments also happen to be the book’s most controversial and entertaining parts. We learn early on about the numerous senators who were secretly plugging for Obama, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, whom the book revealed to have supported Obama because he was “light-skinned” and with no “Negro dialect, unless he wanted one.” (Reid apologized after the book’s publication.)

Bill Clinton was also criticized for a comment he made early in the book to Ted Kennedy about Obama, informing the stalwart senator, “a few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.” Other game-changing new details from the Democratic primary (and before) include: Hillary Clinton would’ve run for president in 2004 but for the objections of her daughter Chelsea; John Edwards tried to make a deal with Obama, so that whoever lost the Iowa Caucus would be the other’s vice-presidential nominee; titillating details of Edwards’s affair; a portrait of Edwards’ dying wife Elizabeth as a psychotic, arrogant shrew; Obama’s poor debate performances; Reverend Wright; and the implosion of Hillary’s campaign staff.

By the time we get to the Republican primary, the book is already more than halfway done, but the reader is treated to some delightful gossip. (Did Cindy McCain have a secret boyfriend back in Arizona?) John McCain falters early in the primary campaign, but returns with a vengeance, possessing newly acquired conservative credentials and a less bulky, less Bushian staff.

The general election is largely the story of McCain’s long, slow decline, but it provides delightful details about the ultimate game-changer: Sarah Palin. Apparently, the obscure Alaska governor did not know why North and South Korea were different countries, why we were in Afghanistan, what the Queen of England’s role was, among many, many other things. She is painted as borderline mentally ill, but campaign workers later supported the book’s portrait as accurate.

“Game Change” was an excellent book, engaging and informative, though I would’ve liked it more had it identified a single source. (The book, instead, was done in the “deep background” style of Bob Woodward.) I recently found myself dwelling on “Game Change” because, ever since reading it, I’ve had a habit of analyzing contemporary politics, looking for these “game-changing” moments.

If Halperin and Heilemann were to write a new book, chronicling the 2012 campaign (which I truly hope they will), what would be the most important game-changers? I propose the following: 1. Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to be divisive (and subsequent demise); 2. Donald Trump’s hilarious foray into the race; 3. Rick Perry’s “oops” comment; 4. Michele Bachmann’s sheer lunacy; 5. Cain’s 9–9–9 proposal; 6. The emergence of personal billionaire patronage; 7. The “you didn’t build that” exaggeration, 8. The choice of Paul Ryan; 9. Clint Eastwood’s disdain for a chair; 10. Bill Clinton’s convention speech; 11. 47 percent-gate; 12. The bad, the good and the ugly (i.e., the debates); 13. Hurricane Sandy.

Takeaway from the 2012 election: You don’t mess with Nate Silver. Or Candy Crowley. Or Big Bird.

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