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Was the Obama Campaign Less Brilliant Than We Thought?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Game Change sequel, Double Down, after it was excerpted in New York magazine. After finishing the book, I want to say more about it. My critique was essentially that the authors focus overwhelmingly on trivial details which, however juicy, do not really tell us anything about how campaigns are actually decided. Their focus may be understandable—the economy is more boring to read about for most people than Obama’s debate prep sessions—but it does lead to a somewhat misguided view of how politics works.

The entire book is full of these tidbits, but I now feel that I owe John Heilemann and Mark Halperin a half-apology. I still think their analysis overstresses the trivial to an alarming degree, but what the book reveals—unintentionally—and what therefore makes it somewhat valuable, is the degree to which the people actually running the campaigns buy into this same view of politics. Or if they don’t buy into it, they at least overreact to things that do not matter, and seemingly ignore things that do.

My favorite example concerns the case of Hilary Rosen. Perhaps you remember her as footnote to a footnote last year. Rosen was a Democratic strategist, not intimately connected with the Obama campaign, who said on CNN that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” The Romney campaign, predictably, feigned outrage and for a day or two this nonsense was all anyone involved in politics seemed to be talking about. I had assumed that the Romney campaign would have quickly realized that this sort of pseudo controversy months out from an election doesn’t really matter much. I was wrong. In perhaps the single most amusing sentence in the entire book, the authors report, “even at the height of the Rosen ruction, not a soul in the [Romney] focus groups brought her comment up.” What’s shocking is that this is presented as surprising, and disappointing to Team Romney! Why are average voters not changing their votes because of Hilary Rosen!? Even among Team Obama, which took the news of Rosen’s comment more in stride, the authors write, “The reaction in Chicago was instantaneous and unanimous: we have to denounce her, so who’s going to send the first tweet?”

The Obamaites’s chance to go bonkers over very little occurred when Joe Biden made his comments about marriage equality, forcing the president to speed up his own announcement in favor of letting gay people tie the knot. Now, admittedly, gay marriage was at least a hot-button issue, Joe Biden was the vice president, etc. But David Plouffe’s reaction, at least reported by Heilemann and Halperin is bizarrely over-the-top.

“Plouffe’s head was still firmly attached to his neck but he wanted Biden’s neck on a platter. WHAT THE FUCK? was his reaction when he took a look at the transcript. We were going to do this in the next two weeks. As a fucking surprise. How can this have happened?!” [Italics, ALL CAPS, punctuation are the authors’]

This reaction proceeds for several pages, and includes some strange analysis (discussed prior to Biden’s remarks), laid out by Halperin and Heilemann, that in coming out for gay marriage at all, “There was also a broader risk: that undecided voters across the board would say, Why in the world is Obama focusing on this when the economy is still so shaky?” If this analysis had any merit, which I don’t think it did, then skipping a big surprise announcement meant to grab huge media headlines, as Plouffe clearly wanted, was in fact a godsend. But the contradiction is never even mentioned. It’s just another FREAK OUT over something that didn’t end up costing Obama the election. (The authors make clear that Biden’s comment undoubtedly helped Obama with fundraisers, but it doesn’t seem to lead either the authors or Obama’s aides to question the importance of gaffes.)

The other good example of this mindset, well reported by the authors, occurred when Cory Booker defended private equity on "Meet the Press," undercutting Obama’s anti-Bain message. The response, predictably, was that Patrick Gaspard, Obama’s political director, went into a fit of rage, screaming “You don’t fucking get it!” at Booker. “You gotta fix this now!” “Obamaworld” is described as “apoplectic.” The whole section ends after Bill Clinton says something similar about private equity, enraging Team Obama again. After noting that Obama himself wasn’t pleased, the authors write, “But more troubling were the monthly employment numbers to him the next say by Gene Sperling.” And that’s about all we hear about unemployment.

I wasn’t sure if Heilemann and Halperin really did think the obvious truth: that these numbers were “more troubling” than a silly comment by Cory Booker. And I don’t blame them for not writing about economic statistics. But after the employment report, there is no reaction from Obama’s campaign. There is no screaming from David Plouffe that Republican austerity policies are slowing the economy down. There is no sense that any political capital that Obama could put into something (anything!) that could possibly affect the economy is important to the campaign, or at least as important as what Hilary Rosen might say on a given day. Maybe all this proves is that campaigns operate in somewhat of a bubble, but it is still compelling stuff.

Heilemann and Halperin had incredible access to the major players, which initially made me wonder why their account of the election’s decisive moments was so thin. It’s possible, however, that their sources have a somewhat similar analysis. If so, the book, which is otherwise pretty empty but nonetheless enormously enjoyable, does indeed tell us something.

P.S. I have been enjoying Peter Baker’s intelligent and informative new book on the Bush administration, the coverage of which has focused too much on the Bush-Cheney relationship, and too little on the interesting portrait of the 43rd president and assorted world leaders. So I was slightly surprised to see Baker’s piece in Politico Magazine explaining why the little details of personal interactions among major political figures actually matters. Baker is certainly right that it’s worth knowing the specifics of internal debates about warrantless wiretapping, or whether Cheney had permission (from Bush) to shoot down planes that had been hijacked on 9/11.

But several of his examples, such as when President Clinton made a phone call to complain about the Middle East to Colin Powell, seem nearly irrelevant. Here’s another: “Did Bush tell Vladimir Putin that the Taliban unraveled “like a cheap suit” after the fall of Mazar-e Sharif (as the former president recalls in Decision Points) or after the fall of Kabul (as Rice recalls in No Higher Honor)?” What Baker chooses not to dwell on, however, is that these details sell books, whether written by Baker himself or Bob Woodward or Halperin and Heilemann, and make news. Baker’s book has them too, but it also has much more; he shouldn’t sell himself short.