Archive for March, 2014

Double Down – A Review

March 3, 2014

“Double Down” is a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. 2012 election and primaries.

We already know the broad outlines – Romney was the best of a bad bunch of Republican candidates, but limped from gaffe to gaffe.  Obama had a lackluster performance in the first debate, but landed a knockout punch on Benghazi in the second, and cruised to a big victory.  So the book reads like a director’s commentary on a familiar movie.

What do we learn?  Obama’s heart was not in the debates initially, and his mocks were consistently bad.  Partly this was because of his general ambivalence to the whole process, and partly because he didn’t feel his second term agenda had anything big worth running on.  But with a lot of drilling and prep from his team, he was able to get the job done in the end.

During the campaign, Biden came out for gay marriage before Obama.  It turns out that this was a simple blunder rather than a move in five-dimensional chess – the administration had planned for the President to make a big announcement at a particular time, but neglected to let Joe in on the plan.  Biden comes off reasonably well – not the most polished, but ferociously loyal to the President, realizing that their fortunes are inextricably linked.

Also interesting in the light of recent events – Romney had considered Christie as a VP, but rejected him as there were too many unanswered questions in his background.  Romney felt mistreated by the media, and this book indirectly claims he had a bit of a case, whether it be the NYT writing the misleading “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” headline for his op-ed, or Candy Crowley breaking debate rules to fact-check him over Benghazi.  On the other hand, he should have known that going in, and been more cautious in wording his article, or finding out just what Obama said.

What does the book miss?  It only touches briefly on Obama’s hugely successful analytics team, and Romney’s analytical fiasco.  Nate Silver is not mentioned, though he is arguably the most important non–partisan figure of 2012.

Indeed, the central puzzle of the election is why Mr. Fix-It Romney was unable to fix his own campaign.  Partly it’s that hostility to mainstream media blinded him to useful truths (e.g. that he was losing, or that independents didn’t think of Benghazi as a big strike against the administration), partly that he had to run against his moderate record (e.g. Romneycare), and partly that his success in business didn’t signify as much as you might think.  Having worked for would-be Romneys, there is often less to them than meets the eye.

Should you buy this book?  The main argument against is that we should not be encouraging this type of personality-driven narrative – fundamental demographic forces, and data-driven fundraising and microtargeting were much more important to the election than anything Clint Eastwood or Valerie Jarrett did.  I’m sympathetic to this view, but feel it misses some important points.  First, Obama’s initially poor debate performance had a noticeable impact on the polls.  Without at least a reversion to average, Romney would have won.  More fundamentally, it’s not enough to just have the ingredients for victory – “dust does not sweep itself”, as Mao said.

Will you enjoy this book?  If you’re a Democrat, and follow political trivia enough that you could recognize Axelrod or Messina, then you will love it.  If you’re a Republican, then you will hate it.  Everyone else will bored.

“Double Down” is the sequel to the successful “Game Change” and includes many of the same characters.  The authors are probably tossing around names for their 2016 book right now.