Monday, March 01, 2010

Game Change

By Mike Dorf

Herewith, a few thoughts on the ever-so-engrossing Game Change, which I just finished reading:

1) Most of the mainstream discussion of the book has focused on various revelations of dysfunctional marriages and gaffes, the gaffiest of these being Harry Reid's "Negro dialect" comment--which, interestingly, is not presented in the book as a gaffe at all but simply matter-of-factly in the discussion of how the Senate Democratic establishment moved to Obama because of fears that Hillary Clinton would lose the general election. The bulk of the book is instead a re-telling of the race that is extremely familiar to anyone who was following it closely (okay, obsessively) at the time. What makes Game Change so entertaining is that the reader gets to relive these moments from the inside of the various campaigns.

2) As the title suggests, the theme of the book is how various events were game changers: The Obama team out-organizing the Clinton team in Iowa; Clinton's tearing up on the eve of the NH primary; Charlie Crist's non-endorsement of Giuliani; the selection of Palin; the Katie Couric interviews; and for the authors, most importantly, the contrast between Obama's sober engagement with, and McCain's gimmicky reaction to, the financial crisis in the week and a half between the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the first Presidential debate. I don't disagree that each of these events felt like a game changer at the time--and the events that bore on the intra-party contests almost certainly were quite important. However, the very notion of a game changer in a Presidential election runs contrary to pretty entrenched conventional wisdom in political science: That a relatively small number of factors such as the state of the economy, which party holds the White House, and the public mood together determine the outcome of nearly all such elections. Only when these factors point weakly in one or the other direction can such matters as candidates' personalities and all of the minutiae on which campaigns focus make much of a difference.

3) And yet, reliving the election through Game Change, it is hard to swallow the conventional wisdom. Suppose Obama had stayed out in 2008, as he almost did, and that Edwards, with his superior Iowa ground game, emerged as the alternative to Clinton. He might have wrapped up the nomination quickly. Then, he could have continued denying paternity of Rielle Hunter's baby for months, only to have it confirmed after he became the nominee. Is it so hard to imagine McCain winning the election under these circumstances--especially if he had chosen a more conventional running mate?

4) What I mean to be raising here--and what the book very nicely illustrates--is the fact that history is made by the combination of large impersonal forces and path-dependent quirks of fate and personality.

5) My biggest disappointment in the book was its failure to mention (and therefore its failure to delve into what lay behind) what I thought were two of Joe Biden's high and low points. High: When he skewered Rudy Giuliani as defining a sentence as "a noun, a verb, and 9/11." Low (other than the "clean" comment that smothered his candidacy in its crib): When he appeared to threaten to shoot his running mate if he "messed with" Biden's shotguns.

6) Meanwhile, the best tidbit that I learned (spoiler alert) was McCain's exasperated response when asked during debate prep if he knew the difference between a gay marriage and a civil union. McCain snapped, "I don't give a fuck." Let's give McCain the benefit of the doubt and assume that he did know the difference but really just didn't care. After all, he was the vastly better informed half of the Republican ticket. Sarah Palin couldn't explain to her debate prep team why North and South Korea are two different countries.