For Halperin and Heilemann (and their publisher), this means one thing: mission accomplished.
Coming off the history-making spectacle of the 2008 race, the borderlinenihilistic presidential campaign of 2012 presents a challenge to authors seeking to spin a compelling tale. That may explain why the pair devotes considerable attention to the Republican primary contest, a more topsy-turvy drama than the trench warfare between Obama and Romney.
The book lacks the made-for-Hollywood scenes of “Game Change”: Elizabeth Edwards ripping off her shirt to reveal her mastectomy scars in an emotional tarmac confrontation with her cheating husband, or anything Palin-related. But there’s still click-bait aplenty: Obama meditating on drone strikes and telling his aides that he’s “really good at killing people”; Christie’s raging temper; Romney adviser Stuart Stevens vomiting backstage after Clint Eastwood’s performance art in Tampa; Romney’s fascination with fat people, including his habit of ribbing male campaign staffers about dating overweight women; George W. Bush calling Rick Perry, his gubernatorial successor in Texas, “a chicken-[expletive] guy”; Obama’s team secretly polling and focus-grouping the notion of replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Democratic ticket; and so on. It’s a book that will launch a thousand listicles.
Such goodies were mined over three years from deep-background interviews with the candidates, their aides and the small galaxy of Washington fixers who surrounded the campaigns. The authors explain their hazy sourcing in a note at the book’s conclusion; media snobs will have a field day. The Halperin-Heilemann method, a number of those who sat for interviews told me, is to invite a subject to a private room at a restaurant or a plush hotel suite, ply them with booze and let the stories flow. But the alcohol was unnecessary; the wild success of the first volume guaranteed that insiders would talk this time. Indeed, in a summer’s worth of casual conversations with veterans of all the campaigns, it was difficult for me to find anyone who didn’t consent to an interview with the pair.
The book’s loose argument is that both Obama and Romney placed their bets about the race early on and “doubled down” throughout the contest. It’s an apt take on Obama World. The “Obamans,” as the authors call them, set out to annihilate Romney almost two years before the election and executed their plan with brutal efficiency. There were hiccups along the way, specifically Obama’s dreary debate-prep sessions and his cringe-worthy performance in Denver, but his deputies in Chicago rarely deviated from their search-and-destroy mission. Romney’s campaign, though, with its bad habit of reacting to news cycles with snap decisions, always felt more ad hoc, with tactics trumping strategy.
Though the gossip merchants of This Town might be disappointed, readers are for the most part spared staff-level infighting and post-campaign score settling. There are exceptions: Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley comes in for rough treatment, depicted as a feckless outsider lost in the youthful, clannish and data-reliant Obama-verse. Although Romney’s chief strategist, Stevens — a popular punching bag for know-it-all Republican consultants after the loss — emerges mostly unscathed, we witness some flashes of impetuousness. He was frustrated, it seems, to be the lone voice on Team Romney lobbying for Christie to be on the ticket instead of Paul Ryan, who is as much a cipher in the book as he was during the campaign: rarely mentioned and barely consequential.