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’Double Down’: A fast, fun, gossipy read

Mitt Romney made fun of fat people.

Michele Bachmann, after one stinging setback, wept in a car, calling herself a “loser.”

And President Obama feared he wasn’t good enough at debating to match the Republican challenger. “I just don’t know if I can do this,” he said.

Such gossipy stuff makes up Double Down: Game Change 2012, a breezy account of the 2012 presidential campaign by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. And it’s a fast, fun read, despite a weakness for $2 words (clamant, Ouroborosian, coriaceous) and an unfortunate fluency in journalistic cliche (“economic headwinds,” “cogs of a well-oiled campaign”).

But with apologies to Jean Renoir, Double Down might as easily have been called “Grand Delusion.” That’s because the bigger picture emerging from this sequel to Game Change, the authors’ best-selling account of the more dramatic 2008 election, is of a Republican Party unmoored from reality.

Readers endowed with the fortitude to relive the last presidential election will be reminded once again of the parade of far-fetched Republican primary candidates – including Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich – who took turns occupying center stage, each seeming to embody a party out of touch with the larger electorate.

When Romney finally secured the nomination by tacking frantically to the right, the party’s effort to unseat a vulnerable Democrat in an ailing economy was undermined by false hopes, ineptitude and a candidate who seemed to have no idea how he came across to the average voter.

Some party elders and key donors knew better; they begged governors Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels (of New Jersey and Indiana, respectively) to enter the race late in the game, but both declined.

Although not psychologically deep, Double Down succeeds by sticking to its story and having the main characters – Obama, Romney, Joe Biden and their key aides – reveal themselves through their actions. The result is a much more coherent experience of the campaign than readers could get by living through the contemporaneous news coverage.

By letting the story do the work, the authors show us a lot, including the role of big money – both sides spend inordinate time sucking up to major donors – and social media. During Obama’s poor showing against Romney in their first debate, the authors note, “there were 10.3 million tweets about it.”

But despite the authors’ “more than five hundred full-length interviews with more than four hundred individuals,” this is also an oddly shallow book focused entirely on the horse race and its personalities.

It’s all but devoid of political, demographic or historical context, and it has almost nothing to say about the mundane but vital operations that can make or break a campaign – such as Team Obama’s sophisticated use of big data.

Nor does it tell us much about the candidates’ ideas for the future of the country. Surely they had some, and surely a voter or two cared. Did Romney’s fiscal proposals add up? Was Obama’s agenda in accord with what polls tell us about the views of the American people? To what extent did these things matter? You’ll never know from this tome.

For Romney, the grand delusion somehow persisted to the bitter end – one that Double Down abets by seeing his many disastrous comments as gaffes rather than, potentially, telling expressions of who the candidate actually was.

In a postmortem with big donors shortly after his defeat, Romney said the president’s successful strategy had been to “focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government,” and then get them to cast ballots. A much simpler explanation could be found every morning in the bathroom mirror.

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