I suppose we should be pleased that every couple of months, a book, that old-fashioned communication form in which ideas are related at considerable length, is able to captivate official Washington for a moment or two. A while back it was Mark Leibovich's This Town, which cast a jaundiced eye on the incestuous world of press and politics in the capital, and the latest is Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012, which won't be officially released until tomorrow but already stands at #8 on Amazon.
I haven't read Double Down, but if it's anything like the authors' previous work, there'll be no jaundice to be found. As in Game Change, their best-selling account of the 2008 election, the authors show themselves to be aficionados of the scoop for scoop's sake, giving us the inside skinny from campaign operatives with scores to settle but avoiding saying anything interesting about what it all means. That's perfectly fine—if you're interested in politics, reading about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is entertaining enough, much like finding out from People magazine how Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo got along on the set of The Avengers. But from early reports, Double Down isn't exactly delivering the spice, perhaps because it lacks a central character quite as compelling as Sarah Palin was to the authors' previous installment.
If you read The Washington Post's "Eight best tidbits from Double Down," you'll learn that Obama aides conducted polls to see if swapping Joe Biden out for Hillary Clinton was a good idea, but after that the tidbits get remarkably dull. The Romney campaign gave potential VPs fish-based nicknames! Romney thought Chris Christie was fat! Barack Obama finds Bill Clinton to be a little much sometimes! That's really the best they could do? Maybe 2012 just wasn't all that interesting an election.
In thinking about it this morning I went back and found something I wrote about Mark Halperin a few years ago, and not much has changed:
To a Washington anti-wonk like Halperin, policy is for suckers, the stuff the powerful talk about to convince people that something more than theater is going on. If you want the real inside scoop, Halperin and company tell us, you have to presume that everything politicians say is a lie. Politicians may talk about important issues like education and the economy, but the truth is in the artifice, the hidden political strategy, the interest group appeased and the key demographic courted. So Halperin and the rest of the pundit class won't waste your time with anything else. And of course, if everything is a lie, then nothing is; when a politician tells you that cutting taxes raises revenue or that government health insurance can't work, only the naive ask "Is it true?" The only relevant question is, "Will it work politically?" If you win, you're celebrated, and if you lose, you're worthy of nothing but scorn.
Halperin is just one of a type: the journalist as amateur political consultant, the scribe who sees his highest calling as telling a president or a campaign what they're doing wrong. Not wrong in the sense of practically misguided or morally questionable but in the sense of tactically misconceived, in a world where the only reality is political reality and praise is due to whoever can move the polls a tick or two.
Like I said, I haven't read Double Down, and maybe it's a thoughtful critique of contemporary political campaigns and their failure to properly educate the electorate and produce informed public deliberation. But probably not. And if you're going to write a book whose purpose is to give us a window into all the exciting and high-stakes backstabbing and machinations, it helps if there's good dirt to be dug. From what we know so far, it doesn't look like there was.
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