In 2010, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann published their outstanding “Race of a Lifetime,” a fly-on-the-wall inside account of the 2008 presidential election. Enjoying unparalleled access to key figures, Race of a Lifetime provided one of the best and most incisive accounts of the campaign that pitted Barack Obama against John McCain, eventually leading to the former’s entry into the White House. And in September 2013, its sequel Double Down was published.
Opening with a bleak examination of Obama’s first term in office, Double Down excellently dispels the preconception that incumbency advantage would allow him to triumph again in November 2012. Detailing Obama’s fractious relationship with an angry and deeply partisan House of Representatives that had reduced him to having virtual lame duck status, his negotiations with John Boehner and a breakdown of trust amongst his closest advisors; Heilemann and Halperin set an excellent scene for what would have to be a hard fought election. While in 2008 Obama was arguably a vessel, an antidote for the havoc wreaked by George W. Bush, in 2012 he was fighting for something far greater: himself.
However, it is only in its second section that Double Down really begins to shine. Examining each member of the veritable conservative freak show that the Republican primaries were, its chapters aptly demonstrate how (generally) weak the field of GOP challengers really were. The portraits it paints of each candidate are revealing, and go far beyond the public image most of us are familiar with based on media interviews and televised debates. The two authors go far deeper than the general assumption that the likes of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were simple loons, aptly demonstrating the many inadequacies which ultimately precluded them from holding high office.
At times the book bordered on the politically tragic, particularly the deconstruction of Governor Jon Huntsman Jr’s doomed bid for the GOP’s presidential nomination. Also noteworthy are Governor Romney’s almost non-stop string of gaffes that ranged from the simply unfortunate to the disastrous and potentially lethal: think the infamous “47 percent” comment, and the issuing of a point scoring statement directed against the Obama administration in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack against the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya – seemingly putting politics ahead of the murdered diplomats’ recently bereaved families.
Throughout, Governor Romney is presented as being an essentially decent, but politically inept presidential candidate. His campaign was severely hampered by the influences of those with far greater gravitas than he himself had: Clint Eastwood, Donald Trump, and Chris Christie particularly stood out. The paragraphs dedicated to Governor Christie are of particular interest. Often portraying him unflatteringly as a cantankerous egotist, the authors also question his ability to maintain even a basic veil of appropriateness. Examples include Christie engaging in public profanity-laden screaming matches with Romney aides, and at one time, chasing an offending constituent down a boardwalk while aggressively brandishing an ice-cream cone at him. The juxtaposition of these images with Governor Christie’s pre-Bridgegate image as the Republican Party’s only candidate capable of beating Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016’s presidential election make for an interesting contrast.
Double Down was an excellent book that I thoroughly enjoyed. While to a certain extent acronym heavy, it was for the most part easy to follow and went far beyond a dry dissection of America’s most recent presidential election. Heavily focused on the human side of the campaigns they wrote about, Heilemann and Halperin interviewed over four hundred individuals. These included candidates, aides, and staffers. To ensure a high level of candour, all those involved were guaranteed complete anonymity. It is essential reading for all those interested in how President Obama won a second term in the White House and who Governor Romney was beyond the headlines.
Double Down would be particularly useful for A-Level Government and Politics students taking modules in US politics. Covering a wide range of subjects including elections, pressure groups and lobbyists, PACs, the contemporary Republican and Democratic parties, and campaign finance; it is one of the best pieces of reading on contemporary US political history students and a wider audience can find.
By Daniel J. Levy