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By (November 1, 2013) No Comment

Collision2012Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America
Dan Balz
Viking, 2013

“Presidential elections,” Dan Balz writes in Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America,

are often retold from the inside out, as if all power and wisdom flow from the strategists plotting and arguing inside their secured headquarters. But the story is often better told from the outside in, as a way of highlighting how so much that happens in American politics is determined by larger forces that campaign strategists can change only at the margins. This was certainly the case in 2012. For all the drama of any moment, for all the exaggerated attention given to one daily controversy or another, for all the praise heaped on the winners and the second-guessing of the losers… elections play out against the reality of an ever-changing country that powerfully directs the action.

This is true, every word of it. Campaign books rarely take the subterranean churn of history into account. When they do, they usually do it in the most superficial of ways, as gloss to a violent drama, which is what they are really in the business of selling. So Balz’s frank declaration is refreshing in its honesty – or rather it would be, if it didn’t appear on page 239, and didn’t have the flavor of a hurried interpolation by an author rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline.

This is probably about money. For all but historians, campaign books have a brief shelf life. They bank on revealing quotes and fresh memories. To cash in, they need to be turned around quickly, as this one was: Collision 2012 appeared eight months after Election Day, a passage no doubt sped by the fact that it was largely cobbled together from extant reportage, as these books always are. This isn’t Balz’s fault. Publishers wouldn’t contract for these products if they couldn’t get them quickly to market, and Collision 2012, despite its hokey title, is a more serious book than, say, 2009’s best-selling Game Change. It’s horse-race reporting, to be sure, but it’s horse-race reporting of relatively high distinction.

Game Change dwelt on personalities, and was distinguished by its scandalous quotes and hackneyed prose (after politics, only sports beget more clichéd writing). Collision is comparatively subdued, evincing a relatively sober concern with the plain story of the election and the thinking behind the moves of its candidates. Still, Balz clearly loves the pageantry of it all. The text is given over to long descriptions of campaign events, long considerations of political gamesmanship, and long quotes from interviews with advisors and candidates. The advisors are admirably frank if unsensational, while the candidates are useless except as a barometer for how they are trying to present themselves. (There is a chapter near the end solely devoted to Mitt Romney’s reflections on the race, in which he says nothing, that seems to have no purpose other than justifying the interview Balz was granted.)

One advantage of this political granularity, and one of the strengths of this book, is that it allows Balz to accurately convey the ebb and flow of political theater even as his narrative is captured by it. Here, for example, he describes how the Romney campaign responded to a report that they weren’t vetting Florida Senator Marco Rubio for the vice presidency:

The vice presidential selection process is one of those irresistible stories for the media, a classic example in which hype, speculation, handicapping, and analysis quickly outrun any facts or real knowledge of the process. The Romney campaign, like others before it, was determined to ignore all this chatter…. That was the plan, at least until June 19, when ABC News reported that Marco Rubio was not being vetted by the campaign. Rubio…was a new and fresh face in the Republican Party, wildly popular with Tea Party activists, and a Cuban American who might help Romney solve some of his problems with Hispanic voters. When the news broke early that day, some other news organizations picked it up. It was a textbook case of how the media seize on a single piece of information to make it the only topic of conversation until something else happens along to crowd it out. On this day, there were few “confirmations” of the report but plenty of discussion about its implications… At the time of the report, Rubio had already sent in his questionnaire to the campaign… Romney officials privately warned some reporters off the story but would not respond publicly. When it was clear something more definitive was needed, they sent Romney to snuff it out.

The book’s sensitivity to this kind of minutiae leads to more important conclusions, like the fact that the Occupy movement, which pundits have been quick to dismiss, had an effect beyond its time before the cameras because it spoke to a general middle-class unease about inequality and fairness – the kind of talk that is normally discouraged in America’s hysterically pro-capitalist political culture. (And in national elections today only the shrinking middle class counts: Democrats avoid talking about the poor, and Republicans wrap coded language around ugly insinuations.) Balz is concerned with this because the campaigns were concerned with it, to our benefit.

None of which is to say that Collision 2012 doesn’t boast its own share of revelations. It does, but they are the sorts of things we only talk about in “quiet rooms,” to use Mitt Romney’s turn of phrase. This is also about money. Of all the politicians to which Balz gives over his pages, the only one who never wastes our time is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a man with a deserved reputation for unfiltered speech. Mitt Romney was the favorite before the primaries, but the Republican base gave him a tepid reception (due in part to a deserved reputation for flip-flopping). The base also had little respect for Barack Obama, but party elites knew better. So before voters had their say, the bigwigs cast about for an alternative. Christie, along with then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and then-Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, was a frequent recipient of their pleas. He always turned them down. But “once Daniels and Barbour made their decisions not to run,” Balz writes, “the pressure on Christie started to ramp up once again. ‘Craziness,’ he recalled. ‘Unsolicited phone calls from people all over the country.’” What follows is worth quoting at length, and ought to worry anyone who doesn’t pine for oligarchy and the days of the robber barons.

Ken Langone, a wealthy New Yorker who helped found Home Depot, began to apply more serious pressure in private meetings with Christie. In July, he invited Christie to breakfast at the Rocker Club in Manhattan. “The way he sold it to me was that this was going to be a small group of his friends who were going to sit and talk with me about why I needed to do this for our county, and that was Ken’s big sales pitch,” Christie said.

Christie arrived that morning accompanied by his wife; his son Andrew; Mike DuHaime, his top political strategist; and Maria Comella, his communications director. What they saw and heard stunned them all. “It was jaw-dropping,” DuHaime said. Instead of a few people, there were dozens. Christie estimated the group at sixty. Instead of an intimate setting, the room was arranged formally, with the guests’ chairs lined up facing a pair of chairs flanking a small table. A telephone sat on the table. “So we sit down and Langone stands up and says, ‘Governor, all these people are here today for one reason. If you’re willing to announce for president of the United States, we’re with you, and everyone in this room has committed that to me and everyone in this room will raise every dollar you need to have raised to have a successful campaign. You won’t have to worry about raising the money.’” He said Langone then announced that several people could not attend because they were out of the country. Christie then described what happened. “All of a sudden you hear John Mack [former CEO of Morgan Stanley] on the phone. [Langone] said, ‘David Koch is out of the country. David, are you there?’ Yes. David starts talking.” After several others had made the case for him to run, Christie said, Langone asked [Henry] Kissinger to speak for everyone. “So Kissinger’s got the cane and helps himself up, walked to the front of the room,” Christie said, “and he says, ‘I’ve known X number of presidents. Being a successful president is about two things, courage and character. You have both and your country needs you.’ Then he turned around and sat back down. They all applauded.”

There is no doubt that Christie would have been Romney’s most formidable challenger – Obama’s too. Had he run and won, the President of the United States would have been handpicked by secretive group of rich men doing business in the back room of an exclusive club.

Balz has nothing to say about this meeting, except that it was “a measure of their lack of confidence in the supposed front-runner that they continued to openly push the New Jersey governor, despite his professed lack of interest.” And that is the problem with this kind of process reporting, and with this kind of book: there’s hardly any room for implication, for the actual meaning of events.

In 2012, the sitting president, a black, moderate liberal, faced off against a party dominated by aging, white rural voters and given over to inchoate, frothing effusions of anger. That is the central story of the last election, and it’s about demographics and culture. America, as Balz explains in his tardy chapter on the browning face of the country, “was undergoing one of the most important cultural and demographic upheavals in its history… The fastest growing segment of the population by age were those forty-five and over… The fastest growing segment of the population by race was Hispanics.” There follows a flurry of useful statistics: the traditional nuclear family represents a shrinking portion of US households, the younger generations tend to vote liberal, etc. He could also have added that those younger generations are more socially tolerant and less devoutly religious. “All of this,” Balz understatedly summarizes, “added up to trouble for the Republican Party.”

The party has not been helping itself either: its redistricting efforts in 2010 have tightly regimented the political landscape, to the point where only a few dozen House seats are competitive on election day, a figure less than a third of what it was 20 years ago. The machinery for selecting candidates has traditionally been dominated by the hardcore wing of the party, but now the situation has become so extreme that even the leaders of the Republican caucus in the Senate are being challenged in the primaries. The party has rendered itself inert, unable to adapt to an evolving country.

We saw this play out in the primaries last year. With Christie, Daniels and Barbour declining to run, Romney seemed inevitable. But the “lack of confidence” the elites had in him was mirrored for different reasons in the Republican electorate. It was the weakest GOP field in modern history, yet month after month someone rose to challenge his lead: Herman Cain, a boob hawking a book; Michelle Bachmann, a ranting conspiracy theorist; Donald Trump running on the verity of Obama’s birth certificate; Rick Santorum comparing gay sex to bestiality and Iran to Nazi Germany; and Newt Gingrich, the disgraced former House leader, saying anything for applause.

Balz is unable to give these events the interpretation they deserve because the context he requires is shoehorned into the last portion of the book. This constraint dovetails unfruitfully with a reticence to judge. The most egregious example is Newt Gingrich’s rafter-shaking performance at a primary debate in South Carolina. The ex-Speaker’s campaign was fumbling, banking now on a strong showing in the Southern states. “On the campaign trail,” Balz writes, “Gingrich had been routinely calling Obama a ‘food stamp president’ and said that African Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps, from Washington… He also had sparked controversy by contending that poor children lacked a work ethic [and should] work helping to clean their schools.” One of the moderators, Fox’s Juan Williams, who is black, asked him with commendable restraint: “Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”

“No,” Gingrich replied, “”I don’t see that.” He said the schoolchildren would benefit by earning the money and doing the work, “which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.” The audience began to applaud as Williams persisted. “It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people,” he said. Now the audience was booing Williams. Gingrich, who had mastered the putdown of debate moderators, seized the opportunity. “First of all, Juan,” he said, “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” The audience applauded again. “Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.” The brought more laughter and applause.

Gingrich went beyond his allotted time, crashing past the bell, and closed with this peroration:

“I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job. And learn someday to own the job.” As the television screens dissolved for a commercial break, the audience was giving Gingrich a standing ovation, applauding and cheering wildly.
Romney’s lead in South Carolina evaporated overnight. What Gingrich was doing is obvious to anyone with a pulse. But the author subsumes the truth in banalities. That exchange, he writes, “captured the pent-up anger of the party’s base. Conservatives wanted a nominee who would go after the president and the liberal elites, and in Gingrich they saw someone doing it.”

The rest of the candidates get a pass, too. Romney, in his own cowardly way, was just as willing to portray Obama as alien to the alienated base of the Republican Party. One ubiquitous (and false) charge was that Obama had travelled around the world apologizing for America. Balz, as usual, notes this and moves on, not only skirting the intention behind it but mischaracterizing the person behind it, too. Romney had been flinging that charge ever since he published No Apology, a turgid exercise in self-advertisement, two years before. Collision 2012 dilates frequently on the efforts of the Romney campaign to appease the Republican base and notes this book in passing several times, but in focusing on the process instead of the words (the book is never quoted), gives the mistaken impression that Romney, ever hollow and grasping, did not recognize the party shifting and tailor his personality accordingly. On the morality of appealing to racism and fear the author has nothing to say.

Writing recently in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik highlighted the continuity between the far right today and the far right fifty years ago, in Kennedy’s time:

Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship…. There is also the conviction, in both eras, that only a handful of Congressmen and polemicists (then mostly in newspapers; now on TV) stand between honest Americans and the apocalypse, and that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate. And fifty years ago, as today, groups with these beliefs, far from being banished to the fringe of political life, were closely entangled and intertwined with Senators and Congressmen and right-wing multi-millionaires.

But the great sorting out that began with Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights has meant that instead of “an equitable division of loonies,” as Gopnik describes it, “between the die-hard, neo-Confederate wing of the Democratic Party and the Goldwater wing of the Republicans,” today the loonies all belong to the GOP. On November 5, 2008, they woke up and realized that they were losing: their idea of America – their culture – was slowly dying out.

And for all the economic and political havoc they have wrought in the last five years, they are still losing. But there’s a sentence in Balz’s book that scares me. “The demographic differences,” he writes, “between [Hispanics and elderly whites] provided a stark reminder of America’s future, with the two poised for conflict over scarce resources as an older, whiter population gradually gives way to rising generations whose members are significantly more diverse and whose attitudes about race and gender are far different.” Scarce resources: what if the American economy continues on its present course? What if the future is just more anemic growth and ballooning inequality? History tells us that in diverse polities, the blame and rage that accompany hardship will fall, inevitably, on the other. Could the ranks of the populist right swell, as white voters become pessimistic about their chances? It would be a horrible irony if that came to be, if the obstruction, deregulation, and starving of government pursued by the Republican Party injured their base yet tied the two more tightly together. The story of the United States in the 21st century, if we are not careful, could be one of ethnic strife, self-inflicted.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.