In “Game Change,” their chronicle of the 2008 presidential election, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann recount a story in which John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani bonded in the moments before a primary debate by discussing the one thing they all could agree on: how much they disliked Mitt Romney.
Four years later, the target of their displeasure would be the standard-bearer of their party, and Halperin and Heilemann’s much-awaited sequel, “Double Down,” details how Romney rose to the top of “the weakest Republican field in modern times” to face an incumbent president struggling to regain his fighting spirit after a difficult first term.
Charting the course of the race from its beginnings in 2011 all the way to Election Day, the authors aim to show how Romney “doubled down on the orthodoxies of the right,” and how Obama bet big on the ascendant coalition of voters who had put him in office.
Based on more than 500 “deep background” interviews, the book is a treasure trove of gossip from both sides of the aisle. But it’s safe to say that the juiciest bits come out of the large, fractious field of Republican challengers and paint a stinging portrait of the Romney campaign.
“Double Down” depicts Romney and his team as inept and out of their depth. Important speeches put together by Romney and campaign manager Stuart Stevens tended toward the “shambolic and last-minute.” At the Republican National Convention, the ill-fated decision to put Clint Eastwood on stage without a script in prime time was embraced without reservations. And an apparent oversight by the Romney team lead to the candidate being publicly embarrassed during the second debate by moderator Candy Crowley after he incorrectly slammed Obama for failing to label the Benghazi attack as terrorism.
On top of this organizational disarray, Romney seemed to take every opportunity to reinforce his public image “as a man with no compass or true north, whose only convictions were that wealth was good and being wealthy qualified him to be president” (a notion that was bolstered by the leaked video of his controversial remarks about the “47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government . . . who pay no income tax”).
“Double Down” is slight compared with “Game Change,” but that’s largely because the authors have a less inspiring cast of characters to work with. The first book included towering political players like McCain and Hillary Clinton. Here, much of the action is dominated by such paper-thin candidates as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and John Huntsman.
Where the first book charted the dramatic rise of Obama, here he is portrayed as listless and irritable through much of the contest, only regaining his footing when his aides stage an intervention following his uninspired performance in the Denver debate.
Halperin and Heilemann, both longtime magazine journalists and MSNBC political analysts, put that debate at the heart of “Double Down.” Until then, polls showed Obama leading by a solid and stable margin. Romney needed a win, and his strong showing appeared to be a moment of high political drama, a potential watershed.
What the authors don’t address is that the drama turned out to be largely media driven. A few days after Romney’s triumph, the Obama campaign’s internal polling showed him “still holding a 50-47 lead over Romney” — a figure that would prove to be the president’s eventual margin of victory — even as pollsters like Pew had the challenger surging to a four-point lead. And they never mention that Romney’s momentum was blunted a few days later by the October jobs report, which showed that the unemployment rate had dropped to 7.8 percent.
But the book is intended as a compelling saga more than as a definitive history. It delivers some real gems, such as the eyebrow-raising vice presidential vetting of Chris Christie and the growing relationship between Obama and Bill Clinton. Their in-depth look at the chaotic GOP primary also sheds light on the emerging schism between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party movement, which bubbled to the surface during the recent government shutdown. These insider insights help to breathe new life into old news, and make “Double Down” a must read for political junkies.