The Battle for America 2008:
The Story of an Extraordinary Election
byDan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Viking, 432 pp.
nyone in American political journalism above a certain age has probably harbored the occasional fantasy about becoming "the next Teddy White." That’s because White’s The Making of the President 1960 stands as the rare example of a journalist indelibly defining the popular memory of a major political event.
Others have sought to replicate White’s stunning accomplishment, with limited success, including White himself in his three sequels. Hunter Thompson’s gonzo take on the genre, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 was the most enduring, and Richard Ben Cramer’s tome on the 1988 campaign, What It Takes, was probably the most influential. Quite a few cycles passed without any real aspirant to White’s mantle.
Now come Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson with the latest entry, The Battle for America 2008. Given the extraordinary nature of the 2008 elections—particularly the anachronistically extended Democratic primary contest and the historic outcome—it’s as good a time as any to try to recapture the White Magic. Balz is universally considered to be among the best political reporters of his generation, and Johnson’s big-time resume dates back to his Pulitzer for civil rights coverage in the 1960s.
Their book will inevitably compete for attention and sales with Richard Wolffe’s Renegade: The Making of a President, which, despite its deliberate evocation of White in the subtitle, is focused entirely on Barack Obama and doesn’t purport to offer a comprehensive review of the entire multicandidate campaign.
The main problem Balz and Johnson face is the exponential increase in political coverage since Teddy White’s salad days, via cable television and the Internet. Their target audience, the amateur political junkie, is likely to have absorbed countless hours of MSNBC, Fox, CNN, and/or the blogosphere throughout the 2008 cycle. So Balz and Johnson must add something to the accumulated wisdom of all that talk, or challenge it.
In time-honored journalistic fashion, the book adds to prior coverage with extensive interviews of campaign insiders, from the candidates on down. This does provide some interesting heat and light, but it also creates some possible distortions. It’s clear, for example, that the book suffers from the eagerness of Clinton campaign veterans to recall their many conflicts; you find yourself wondering how she survived so long, or how the infighting (which isn’t terribly unusual in presidential campaigns) affected specific strategic and tactical decisions. The authors tend to attribute good developments to the candidate herself, and bad developments to her advisers, which is always a questionable approach in highly complex modern campaigns.
Similarly, while Balz and Johnson provide a very useful account of the old-fashioned labor-intensive aspects of the now-legendary Obama field operation, they tend to avoid what others have probably overemphasized: the use of the Internet—and, particularly, social media—in field organizing and fund-raising. You have to guess that this may have something to do with the particular Obama staffers they were able to interview in depth. And, speaking of the Internet, the authors completely miss one of the more fascinating sub-stories of the Obama campaign: its success in end-running and eventually coopting the progressive blogosphere, which gave the candidate some serious running room for "centrist" ideological heresy in both the primaries and the general election.
Balz and Johnson definitely do an admirable job of policing the conventional mainstream media wisdom about the 2008 campaign, and correcting some common misperceptions. Here are just two examples from the Clinton and McCain campaigns:
The main narrative heard last year was that Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination because she campaigned on the ineffective themes of "inevitability" and "experience" at the beginning; and then, after recovering from her Iowa defeat, at a crucial moment she let her husband wreck her campaign with offensive comments about race and Obama.
Balz and Johnson emphasize two less dramatic, but ultimately more significant decisions: one, HRC’s commitment to a full (if dangerously late) effort in Iowa, her very worst state, which she predictably lost, at the cost of her momentum and of the resources she needed to win in later states; and two, her failure to compete at all in the Super Tuesday caucus states, which wiped out any delegate advantage she might have secured by nearly sweeping the major-state primaries that day.
They do spend some serious time on Bill Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign, but limit the major damage he inflicted to a particular moment around the South Carolina campaign when his polarizing talk began to alienate superdelegates.
Aside from these two issues in the Democratic contest, Balz and Johnson also catch something that a remarkable number of observers never quite figured out: the galvanizing effect of Obama’s win in lily-white Iowa on African Americans who had earlier doubted he could ever win white voters and feared his candidacy as a provocation to racists. This one factor catapulted him over Clinton as the front-runner in many later primaries.
On the Republican side, most postmortems suggested that John McCain won the nomination because of the "next-in-line rule," whereby GOPers are thought to invariably choose a well-known candidate who has been vetted in at least one prior contest. Balz and Johnson are emphatic in arguing that McCain’s nomination victory, while indeed a testament to his persistence, was mainly attributable to a weak field and mistakes by his opponents. Like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney got drawn into the time-and-money pit of Iowa (which distracted him from what he needed to do to croak McCain in New Hampshire), yet didn’t commit enough to win the caucuses. Rudy Guiliani’s late-state strategy never made any sense, and unsurprisingly failed.
Fred Thompson was the on-paper favorite of many pundits, but his indolent campaign was limited to one strong effort in South Carolina, which took just enough votes away from Mike Huckabee to kill off his candidacy. The Thompson campaign offers one of the best of many insider anecdotes produced by Balz and Johnson:
“Fred was sold a bill of goods about what it took to run for president,” communications director Todd Harris later told us. “He was given the distinct impression by people who have never even worked on a presidential campaign, much less mapped one out, that in 2008 all you needed to do was have a heavy blog presence, appear regularly on Fox News and specifically on Hannity & Colmes, and from time to time go out and have an event.”
Yet another strong point of the book is its detailed treatment of McCain’s decision to make Sarah Palin his running mate. She was not, as many people in both parties seem to believe, a panicky last-minute choice made with minimal vetting in order to shock a political world expecting Romney, Joe Lieberman, or Tom Ridge. Through interviews with McCain’s staff, Balz and Johnson determined that she was on the short list for well over a month, and she went through exactly the same vetting process as everyone else. By the time of her final vetting and interview with McCain, all the pro-choice options had been taken off the table out of fear of a convention-floor fight, and the conspicuously wealthy Romney had been scratched immediately after McCain confessed he couldn’t remember how many homes he owned. The ultimate decision was between Palin and Tim Pawlenty, and McCain’s pollsters were telling him he’d almost certainly lose if he didn’t change the dynamics of the race. Chief vetter A. B. Culverhouse offered McCain this bottom line on Palin: "John, high risk, high reward." There was nothing wrong or "hasty" about that assessment.
If the book has any real weakness, it’s one that afflicts virtually all personality-and-event-driven accounts: a persistent understatement of the fundamentals, particularly demographic factors. Yes, in their analysis of the Democratic contest Balz and Johnson talk a lot about racial and gender issues, and Hillary Clinton’s eventual appeal to white working-class Democrats. But they don’t much convey the extent to which demographic divisions regularly trumped money, issues, campaign dynamics, and news events. For a long stretch of time, you could predict the primary results in many states with considerable precision by simply looking at census data. That makes it especially unfortunate that the book happens to ignore the few primaries—notably Georgia, Wisconsin, and Virginia—where Obama seemed to have broken the demographic mold, an important precursor to the party unity achieved in the late summer and fall.
Balz and Johnson also fall somewhat short in assessing the impact of demographics on McCain’s increasingly desperate general election campaign. For example, they treat the bizarre appearance of Joe the Plumber at the center of the McCain campaign as an insignificant sideshow, rather than what it was: a convoluted effort to tie racial, gender, and class appeals to reactionary tax policies.
For some of the same structural reasons, the book ultimately feels as herky-jerky and exhausting as the campaign itself. There are too many turning points, too many crucial decisions, and too many key people in this book; you get to the conclusion longing for more analysis and "narrative arc." In fact, in an interview reprised in the last chapter, President-elect Obama provides some of the better big-picture analysis in the entire book.
But make no mistake: at a time when the Big Campaign Book has become a lost form, Balz and Johnson have set a very high standard for comprehensive reporting. As personal memories of the 2008 campaign fade or are distorted by subsequent events, The Battle for America 2008 will provide an exceptionally accurate record of a very complicated and momentous election year. Teddy White would be proud.