I have never been much of consumer of campaign books. I tend to think they more or less rehash everything that has already been dissected in contemporaneous reporting even if they do offer juicy tidbits about campaign infighting, portraits of a frustrated candidate, and a loads of humorous anecdotes. Couldn’t I get much of that on YouTube spoofs anytime I want? Aside from a peculiar variety of political junkies, I often wonder to myself who actually purchases such books.
But after reading the an excerpt of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in the Washington Post today, I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal of that genre of books. Of course, the 2008 presidential contest from primary to the end of the general election is an unusual serious of events featuring an unlikely stew of characters giving life to grand themes. Somehow the white guy from the South, former Senator John Edwards, became the underdog and a white woman from a northern blue state and black guy with a Muslim name became the main competitors on the Democratic side. And even in that struggle contained hues of David versus Goliath storyline that the media found easy to sell to a eager public.
Meanwhile, the Republican corp had a number of cartoon characters from the adamantly anti-immigrant then-Congressman Tom Tancredo to the jolly aw shucks evangelism of former Arkansas Mike Huckabee. A more disciplined Senator John McCain had to emerge from the ashes before taking the lead. And that only happened after his big win in New Hampshire.
The media’s appetite for sideshow personalities like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Joe the Plumber, and Bill Ayers made the long campaign easy fodder for water cooler talk for those who wanted a little gossip go with wonky debates on the minutiae of preconditions, the importance of a employer mandates in a health care plan, and the intricacies of the delegate and Superdelegate count.
Historians will have fun with that moment in American politics for generations to decades to come – maybe even longer than that.
But everything revolved around the eventual victor Barack Obama. Compared to his competitors, his campaign was heralded a marvel of near pitch perfect management with few dips in morale matching the posture of its intrepid leader. And the public, particularly his supporters, were very impressed with his cool demeanor, keen intellect and soaring rhetoric.
Balz and Johnson, however, seized on the moments in which those notions did not hold up.
Aides worried that Obama’s low morale might infect others in the campaign and spoke to him about it. They tried to buck him up, but at points in the spring and early summer of 2007, he was deeply frustrated — with his own performance and with that of much of his campaign. On July 15, he met with his senior staff at the home of Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and confidante to both Obama and his wife, Michelle. One adviser recalled it as the moment Obama began to take a more direct role in the operations of his campaign. He was blunt in his critique, and the exchanges among some of his advisers became testy. Beyond fundraising and the operation overseeing the Internet and new media, the campaign was not performing well, Obama said. The message still wasn’t where it should be. The political operation wasn’t up to speed. The campaign lacked crispness and good execution. He believed it was becoming too insular and wanted new people added to the inner circle. He told his team members they were all doing B work. If they continued on that course, they would come in a respectable second.
“Second is not good enough,” he said.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the excerpt so far, however, was then-chief campaign strategist and now White House senior adviser David Axelrod’s candid and prescient assessment of the big O’s potential weaknesses in a 2006 memo.
“It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama’s 2004 Senate opponent.
Many in the blogosphere and beyond often wondered if Obama was in fact the happy warrior beneath all that cool even if he could seduced legions of voters with great speechifying. The sheer force of the machinery of the campaign helped quell, thought not silence, many of those lingering doubts. And Obama knew it telling Balz and Haynes:
As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. “I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary,” he said. “Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn’t to say that we underestimated John McCain; it’s just that we didn’t think that their campaign operation was as good.
I cannot help but note the irony here that the campaign that was often dubbed as personality driven and almost free of doubt was in fact the very same tightly organized campaign that achieved success in no small part due to a healthy fear of losing. Its not news, but still a tidbit worth chewing. And maybe with enough of these kinds of insights it might even form a book worth reading.