Saturday, March 24, 2012

Game Change

If you have not had a chance to read "Game Change" or see the HBO movie of the same name, I highly recommend you do so.  The book is the better of the two, as it covers the entire scope of the 2008 presidential campaign while the movie focuses on the GOP decision to select Sarah Palin as the Vice Presidential candidate and then the subsequent results of that decision.   The book is much, much more detailed on the overall campaign and the first half covers the Democratic campaign focusing on the candidacies of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Written by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, two veteran reporters covering the political landscape in this country for several years, it is a detailed history of the campaign of 2008 and shows the high points, the low points and everything in-between of all the candidates as they vie for the nomination of their parties to become the President of the United States.

Of course we know what happened, Barack Obama, a freshman Senator from Illinois won the election handily, defeating John McCain by a significant margin to become the 44th president of the United States and the first African American elected to this office.  What this book and the movie illustrates however is the journey to this historic destination.

Heilemann and Halperin take a very objective view of the various candidates in this campaign. They show the upside moments and the downside moments of each candidate through the time from the announcement of their candidacy to the eventual completion of the election.  What is described in the book is a laundry list of teachable moments for anyone interested in politics and something that should be required reading in high-school government classes.  The book is not a polemic, rather it shows the nuts and bolts of how we elect our leaders to the highest office in the land and shows the consequences of big money, big media, and big ambition.

What struck me as so important in the book is the lesson that these elections need to be taken very seriously by the public at large.  As one will see when reading the book  or even watching the movie, these people are not one-dimensional, and the office of the presidency or even vice-presidency is a complicated and difficult task.  The lesson here:  It's not a popularity contest. It's not a matter of who the voter "feels comfortable with".  It is instead a matter of who can deal with a multitude of issues, none which are easy and none which come to the office of the presidency at a time the occupant of that office desires.  It is a whirlwind of decisions many inter-related that are difficult to make.  Many of them have no "good" outcome, it is rather, the lesser of two evils.  The TARP decision made in the fall of 2008 is a prime example of this.  Politically, TARP was a big stinking pile of refuse that helped no one, but if the decision hadn't been made, first by the Bush administration and followed up again by the nascent Obama administration, the country would have been much, much worse off than it was as a result of the bail-out being pushed through.

The other telling point in the book is how the candidates (now just McCain and Obama) handled their roles as titular leaders of their party during this crisis. Many of you may remember, the decision by the McCain campaign to suspend activities so he could go back to Washington to try and broker a deal.   McCain called President Bush and a meeting was set up with the principals in the Bush administration, attended by the president himself along with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, other members of the cabinet, the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses of Congress and finally the two candidates themselves.  Paulson had come forward with a request for $800B with little to no oversight from congress.  Publicly the House balked at this but Senate Democrats, House Democrats and Senate Republicans were essentially on-board.  What remained to be seen was if the House Republicans could be brought around.

 McCain had organized the meeting, and ostensibly had something to say with respect to how and address the matter. But, it was candidate Obama, who after President Bush opened the meeting and asked Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid for their comments, and was told that "Senator Obama will be speaking for us", who had the most to say. He came to the meeting prepared, he had previously held several conversations with Secretary Paulson, congressional members and members of Private Industry who understood what was happening with the economy. He discussed key points that any "rescue"must have including dealing with "golden parachutes", executive compensation, oversight and flexibility, and  it was indicated in the book that a unnamed Republican in the room said "If you close your eyes and listen, it sounds like Obama is already president".   The meeting had lasted fort-five minutes before John McCain said a word. Senator Obama asked for McCain's input, and he replied with a set of talking points that didn't provide any clear direction on where he stood.  Minority leader Boehner said he wasn't sure the Republicans in the House would get on board and provided a smaller level of relief.  Congressman Barney Frank asked McCain where he stood on the issue.   he said:  "The House Republicans have a right to their opinion on the matter".  Frank asked again "Do you agree with their position?"  McCain, said "No, but they have a right to their opinion."  So, McCain had no clear stance on the matter, had called the meeting and essentially had sat quiet throughout the session with little input.  The following Monday, September 29th, the Paulson bailout was voted down in the House with every Republican voting against the measure.  The next day,  the DOW industrial dropped by 800 points, and five days later, the Congress voted in a smaller $700B aid package.  But, but this time confidence on Wall Street was gone and the following week, the DOW dropped another 2000 points or almost 18% of its value.  This was the single largest weekly drop in value in the 112 year history of the Exchange.

The point of this story is that it illustrated the differences between Obama and McCain on the issue.  As the book discusses, McCain formed the meeting essentially to save his campaign, and did little else to prepare. Obama, not enthusiastic about suspending campaign activities to go to Washington in the first place, came well prepared and essentially took charge of the meeting.  The differences in approach between the candidates, not just McCain and Obama, but Clinton and Obama, Edwards, Palin, Biden, etc.  were significant and telling.   Had the public had insight to what was going on throughout each of these campaigns, we might have seen a faster rise of the populism that occurred in 2009 with the Tea Party and later with the OWS movements because much of these decisions made by these candidates were about perception, one-upsmanship and how they can paint the "other guy" as weak, ineffectual, or in Obama's case: unAmerican.

The book shows very unflattering moments from all the candidates and their surrogates.  Bill Clinton does not come off well in the book. Neither does Elizabeth Edwards.  But the worst, by far in the book is Sarah Palin.  The section of the book that describes her selection by campaign strategists Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis as a potential "game-changer" for the McCain campaign was a teeth-grinding, blood pressure raising and "throw the book at the wall" level of cynicism that is almost beyond belief.  Down in the polls by as much as 15 points to Obama in the summer of 2008, McCain's team had decided that they had to make a moment, create an event that shook up the momentum of the Obama campaign and give them a chance to claw back some of the distance between the two camps.   The Vice Presidential selection would be that moment.  McCain and Mark Salter, one of McCain's most trusted advisers, were heavily in the Joe Lieberman as the VP camp.  Both felt this was "McCain as Maverick" at its best, and that Lieberman would show that McCain was indeed "Putting Country First" as his campaign slogan shouted.  Schmidt and Davis, data analysts to the core, had run polling and came up with the opposite conclusion.  A liberal, Democratic, Orthodox Jew, would split the party and it would be game over for McCain.  They suggested that it had to go in another direction, and find someone who would ignite the core base, who was more conservative socially than McCain.  They said they needed to close the "gender gap" because Obama was polling far ahead of McCain with women.  So, McCain said: "Find me a woman".  The eventual result was the first term governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin.  The McCain camp had gone so far into the year that only a very short vetting period was available to look into Ms. Palin and determine whether or not she was the person they needed to select.  The vetting team did weeks worth of vetting in a period of 5 days. On the big issues, she seemed to be willing to align with McCain's views. However, the team didn't probe far enough and the things they missed soon turned out to be another in a series of "Game-Changers" that affected the election.  Out of the gates, it became apparent that Palin didn't have a very large fund of knowledge on world issues, let along specific things such as how the economy worked. She didn't understand what the Federal Reserve was as an example.   But, she was dynamite in front of a microphone.  Her convention speech where she declared that the difference between a Hockey Mom (herself) and a pit-bull was lipstick was fantastic. She was electric.  Immediately polling bumped in favor of McCain after the convention speech.  She was the medicine the campaign needed as far as Schmidt and Davis were concerned.  But, as fast as she took off, she came down to earth quickly with a marginal performance in front of Charlie Gibson, where she uttered the infamous "You can actually see Russia from some parts of Alaska" when responding to Gibson's question about how her foreign policy views were informed.  Immediately, Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live seized upon this with the excruciatingly funny but damning "I can see Russia from my house!" bit on the weekend comedy show.  It got worse.  Her interview with Katy Couric was a disaster and became more fodder for the SNL troupe.  The campaign was in almost panic mode as Palin sunk into a deep depression, refused to work with the team to shore up her amazing lack of knowledge. She became almost catatonic in briefings where Nicole Wallace, former Bush White House Communication Director was attempting to prep her for interviews and public appearances. Palin wasn't eating, losing weight alarmingly, and continually worried about her poll numbers in Alaska, a safely Red State for the campaign.   What becomes evident to Schmidt and others (Wallace couldn't vote for her in the general, so refused to vote at all.) was what they had done. They created a "Frankenstein Monster" who, while charismatic and ready to go all out and attack Obama on Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright, had no clue or no interest in substance. She also had no trouble lying. She had yelled at Schmidt to get the Alaska Press to retract a story about her husband's membership in the Alaska Independence Party (AIP), a secessionist party that wanted to leave the union.  She said first that Todd had not been a member of the party, had only checked the party registration by mistake and it was retracted later, when in actuality, Todd had been a member of the AIP for seven years. 

The result one gets from reading this book depend upon one's political perspective.  As everyone who reads my blog knows, I'm a liberal and in the tank for Obama, so from my perspective he comes out looking very good in the book.  However, regardless of political affiliation or bias, this story shows how close we came to electing a woman with literally a 5th grade level understanding of the world and how government works to being a heart-beat (a 72 year old multiple cancer survivor heart-beat) away from the presidency.  It literally sent shivers down my spine while reading this.  It is so vitally important, that we as a people get seriously engaged in who we send to Washington, regardless of role, in order to make sure they are prepared and ready. Obama was prepared, Palin was not, that much is clear.  What we need to do as an electorate is ask extremely serious questions of our candidates.  It really doesn't matter what political party the person has when that 3AM call comes (the Hillary commercial castigating Obama's inexperience), it matters what the person does when they answer the call.

Read this book, see the movie. It will entertain, inform, and terrify you all at the same time.

Tell me what you think.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:24 PM

    What I found most interesting about the book was the discussion on Edward's amazing fall from grace. At one time, he was seriously considered by me and many as the man to be President. It just goes to show you that ambition can be a serious problem for some people. Plus, the guy is a douche.