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A political diary that captures the spirit of the 2012 election
on August 6, 2013
This book is an enjoyable read because it captures the sights and sounds of the critical events that shaped the 2012 general election and the Republican primaries that led into it. Besides Obama and Romney, it gives a good overview of the prominent Republican primary candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul.
It gives a big picture of the candidates and their campaign themes, but also describes the little things that were decisive in shaping the voters' impressions of the candidates. It's right up there in the league of Theodore White's classic THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT (1960,1964,1968,1972) series.
Author Dan Balz tells the anecdotes of human interest that give life to presidential campaigns. One of my favorites is the good-natured exchange between Mitt Romney's son Tagg and the Obamas after one of the debates:
As the debate ended, Tagg Romney went onstage and approached the president. The week before, during a radio interview, he had been asked what it was like to hear his father called a liar repeatedly during the Hofstra debate. Tagg said it made him want to take a swing at the president.
He immediately regretted the comment and wanted to make amends directly: "He was shaking hands and I just leaned in and said, 'Mr. President, I hope you know how sorry I am for what I said. I didn't mean what I said. I would never want to punch you or anybody else and hope you understand it was an expression that was used badly on my part.' He (Obama) looked at me and said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. If someone said that about someone in my family I'd feel the same way. You're just protecting your dad. You'e a good son. I hope my daughters are as protective of me as you are of your dad.' Michelle Obama looked at me and said, 'Thank you for saying that. It means a lot to us.'"
Another one of my favorite stories is about Clint Eastwood's improvised "Empty Chair Debate" at the Republican Convention. One of the Republican media experts thought the unscripted charade was so bad that he literally vomited. I had heard about it but hadn't seen it, so I just now looked it up on Youtube and thought it was pretty good. The convention audience ate it up. The story of the upchucking media operative is amusing because it is one of many anecdotes that illustrate the pressure-cooker atmosphere that campaign managers operate under.
Balz also does a thorough job of explaining the popular backdrop to the election:
People see and feel an economy that is still inflicting pain on them and their families and friends. Anger with politics is palpable.
People see Washington as a swamp of bickering and gridlock. When I ask one couple about Washington...their frustrations spew forth. Republicans and Democrats are going down separate roads that never intersect, the husband tells me. "And if there's a bridge between them," his wife says with evident disgust, "they'll burn it."
A retired electrician warns that public patience is limited. "People are angry and frustrated and have no focal point," he says. "You think the Arab Spring can't happen here? Think again." Another man points to the Occupy Wall Street protests that are then popping up in many cities. "It's kind of like a volcanic gurgle," he says. "The mountain hasn't exploded, but it's rumbling."
The book explains why Romney didn't ride that wave of disaffection to defeat Obama. Perhaps Romney would have been the better choice prior to the 2008 financial collapse when tax cuts for investors were seen as the best way to grow the economy for all ("a rising tide lifts all boats.") But the economy failed in 2008 despite the prior years of tax cuts for investors and partial deregulation of the financial industry. Rightly or wrongly, voters became skeptical of Romney's economic agendas. Romney became a man out of his time.
I also thought of Mitt as being like a human transceiver. --- picking up whatever signals are around him, amplifying them, and rebroadcasting them. As Governor of Massachusetts he absorbed Liberal vibes. The centerpiece of his governance was the healthcare reform known as "Romneycare." But when he became the Republican standard-bearer he absorbed the Conservative background radiation of "free-markets-are-good, government-is-bad." This made him run like a scared rabbit away from "Romneycare" all his other previous positions in public life.
He was as flexible on the issues as a rubber band. Nobody, perhaps including him, had any idea of what he'd do as President. Would he raise taxes or lower them? Would he repeal "Obamacare" or continue its implementation? Would he support gay marriage or oppose it? Would he increase the defense budget or scale it back? Would he maintain Social Security and Medicare, or would he phase them out with vouchers?
Obama, in contrast, was consistent in the things he advocated for. He did not hem and haw or try to back-peddle when challenged on it. He believed in his message and the majority of voters believed he believed it.
This book describes the difference between the candidates in an entertaining, event-driven narrative of the campaign. It's like a good novel in taking you into the campagn, enabling you to experience its sights and sounds, and making you feel as if you're tagging along with the press at the side of the candidates. I enjoyed the drama of the Republicans fighting it out among themselves in the primaries even more than I did the Romney vs. Obama campaign in the general election.I also enjoyed reminiscing about some of the colorful events that had slipped my memory --- like Clint Eastwood's "empty chair" at the Republican Convention and Obama's dreadful first debate with Romney.
The only critique of substance is that the "future of elections" in the subtitle turns out to be an abbreviated epilogue. There are some interesting but not especially meaningful speculations on what may be the campaign themes of future elections.
I felt the book was objective in describing the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. It's the kind of "fun to read" book that you want to take on a vacation to read at leisure. It's also great for data-mining by political junkies. It therefore appeals to a general audience and to political enthusiasts.