At one point in their emptily entertaining replay of the 2012 presidential election, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin engage in projection. They describe another political book as “teeming with tittle-tattle.” But Double Down likewise glorifies the flimsily sensational. Reading it is like spending a week on a boat with two fishermen who are trying hard to convince you that the minnows they’re catching are whales. The great polarizing issues of the day matter less to Heilemann and Halperin than one-upmanship.
Nevertheless, their cutesy writing style is uncomplicated enough for mid-to-high-information beachgoers to pass the time, reliving Mitt Romney’s maladroit struggle against an uninspiring Barack Obama. Heilemann and Halperin’s weaknesses could be overlooked in their last bestseller, Game Change, because their subject, the 2008 election, was so damn interesting. No credible screenwriter would have dared pitch such an idea. A young African-American senator defeats a former First Lady for the Democratic nomination after a dramatic primary marathon. His Republican opponent, an aging war hero, chooses an unknown female governor as his running mate without properly vetting her. Shortly after, she shows herself to be dangerously unqualified. Meanwhile, the country faces the worst economic crisis since the Depression. In comparison, the 2012 election was as dull as a tax lecture.
Double Down does have moments. The authors take us behind the scenes of Clint Eastwood’s address to the Republican convention, when he had a tete-a-tete with a piece of furniture. Eastwood’s appearance was Romney’s idea; he was in awe of the actor, who got the idea for the chair from a Neil Diamond song he heard earlier that day on the radio. Incredibly, Romney’s people never insisted that he clear his remarks with them. They were too afraid of the Man with No Name.
But a month later, the president’s performance at the first debate made Eastwood “appear prophetic.” The authors do a good job of describing the turmoil that preceded and followed the event in Denver. In 2008, pundits were impressed with "No Drama Obama," a candidate who oversaw a campaign largely devoid of infighting. But after he entered the White House, it seemed like "All Drama Obama," with staffers taking turns sniping at each other. Things came to a head a few days before the crucial second debate, when Obama was still struggling to relax. His advisors had to stage an intervention, during which the president confessed his psycho-political shortcomings.
Heilemann and Halperin devote excessive space, however, to never-rans such as Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and the pathologically self-congratulatory Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Obama campaign’s groundbreaking data-mining operation, which was instrumental in the president’s reelection, is mentioned only once. And one would like an explanation for the dismissive description of the man who filmed Romney’s fateful 47 percent remark at a Boca Raton fundraiser. To the authors, he is merely “a disgruntled bartender.” As they well know, his name is Scott Prouty, and he is something of a hero, having pulled a woman from a sunken car. Are they upset with him because he spoke at length with Jonathan Alter, for his book on the 2012 campaign, The Center Holds?
The authors also fail to tell us what was at stake in this election. Had Romney prevailed, he and his running mate, Paul Ryan, would have attempted to undermine the social safety net. But that is too deep for the authors, whose language is geared toward glibness. Rick Santorum is referred to as “Santo,” Chris Christie is “Big Boy,” someone doesn’t know “squat,” someone else gets into a “hot mess.” Lest you think the authors are dumbing themselves down, every now and then they reach for their thesaurus; for example, did you know Christie had a “coriaceous hide?”
Recently, a poll suggested that a majority of Americans would now vote for Romney. No doubt this is due to dissatisfaction with Obama’s inexplicably inept handling of the Affordable Care Act, which has jeopardized his second term.
During the campaign, Bill Clinton was dismayed at the breaks Obama got. “He’s luckier than a dog with two d---s,” the former president said. But today the dog acts as if it has been fixed by a vet.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.