That rising background babble you hear is the coming of another election season: 2014 brings primaries, midterms and the beginning of the long and maximally noisy slog toward Electing a President 2016.
Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? OK, maybe that’s the wrong question. But why has American politics gotten so rotten? And why do we put up with the back-room conniving, the moneyball chicanery, the noxious advertising, the dull debates?
I ask these questions after finishing “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” the page-turning book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about the last presidential election season.
Aside from occasionally tedious treks through some small weeds, “Double Down” is loaded with insight and gets its energy from a brutally honest narrative style that drills inside the heads of the leading players and many of their operatives. It stands right up there with classics of the campaign genre, such as Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” (about the 1988 presidential contest, that post-Reagan showdown that brought us Bush I and Joe Biden’s first run for the prize).
The “news” of “Double Down” was widely reported a couple of months ago as it first landed: For a brief period during the strategizing for President Barack Obama’s re-election, insiders considered replacing Vice President Biden with Hillary Clinton; and, after his poor performance in the first debate with Mitt Romney, even Obama wondered if he was up to the task of two more of the staged one-on-one bouts.
But beyond the sound-bite coverage of those bits there’s much to savor in the record of not only the incumbent’s struggles, but of the loony Republicans’ dogfights to go up against the hated Obama. Who can’t look back in fondness at the West Wing brawls and as Romney watched one unlikely challenger after another — Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich — rise and pratfall, delaying his inevitable anointment?
We know how it ends, of course, but Halperin and Heilemann mine gold all along the way — at the debates, in Romney’s “veepstakes,” in the unpredictability of former President Bill Clinton, in the “47 percent” debacle, in Obama’s interior struggles. Some choice nuggets:
• “Long before she entered professional politics, Bachmann was splashing in the conservative media puddle, gamely trying to call in to Rush Limbaugh’s show as an ordinary dittohead.”
• “(Chris) Christie told Romney he wasn’t going to back anyone in the near future. It’s too soon, he said, I’m not ready. (What Christie thought was less diplomatic:This guy will be delighted with my endorsement whenever I decide to make it.
) He also told Romney something else — that until Christie made up his mind, he wanted none of the candidates, including Mitt, to raise money in New Jersey.
“Romney found the stipulation galling...”
• “ ‘I just don’t know if I can do this,’” (Obama) said.
“Obama’s advisers sat silently at first, absorbing the extraordinary moment playing out in front of them. In October of an election year, on the eve of a pivotal debate, the president wasn’t talking about tactics or strategy, about this line or that zinger. He was talking about personal contradictions and ambivalences, about his discomfort with the campaign he was running.... More striking was Obama’s candor and self-awareness. The most self-contained president in modern history (and, possibly, the most self-possessed human on the planet) was laying himself bare, deconstructing himself before their eyes — and admitting he was at a loss.”
Yes, the babble will soon evolve into dramas large and small. Who will be the American president No. 45? And why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Maybe it’s like that old Woody Allen bit: the guy won’t give up on his brother, who thinks he’s a chicken because he buys into the absurdity, telling a psychiatrist, “I need the eggs.” Politics — that’s entertainment!