Double Down a Fascinating Inside Look at an Embarrassing Election

I was hesitant to take on the 475-page behemoth from Halperin and Heilemann when it arrived. I had pretty much left the misery of the 2012 campaign (and subsequent election results) in the past, and the degree of backlog I am suffering from right now in my reading list was not motivating me to take on this work (the book right before this was Geithner’s 550-page Stress Test and the one right after this is Prin’s 425-page All the President’s Bankers, which I should finish today). But I took on Double Down, and am glad I did. A few items worth noting by way of review …

The book is well-written, and frankly quite good at avoiding partisan biases and cheap shots. There was nothing from the authors that really got under my skin in reading the book. They were fair to Gov. Romney, objective in their treatment of Pres. Obama, and frankly, quite gifted at taking an 18-month campaign and making it interesting. The book’s sequence was quite compelling – going from Obama’s first several years in office as a precursor to why his re-election campaign was going to be so challenging – to the post-2008 preparations of Mitt Romney’s second attempt at the Presidency, to the circus clown disaster that was our Republican primary, and then through the entire Obama vs. Romney saga of the fall. It was thorough. It was well-written. And, for this conservative Republican who cares so deeply for his country, it was depressingly painful.

The reality of the 2012 election is that Obama was irresistibly beatable according to any political metric one looked at. His rank hypocrisy on the use of PAC money, the extraordinary skill and discipline of him and his team in prosecuting a campaign, his ability to raise money, the embedded benefits of incumbency, and his virtually 100% market share of a key voting bloc (African Americans), all started the race off with some significant hurdles to overcome for a would-be challenger; BUT, he was unpopular, the economy was not good, the charm and aura of all his BS promises had long since blown away, and independents had turned on him. Obama was beatable, and my reading of Double Down reinforced for me how unforgivable it is that this opportunity was missed by the Republican Party.

The biggest think that stuck out to me in reading the book was how painfully obvious it was very early on to so many in the higher chambers of Republican leadership that Mitt Romney was just simply not going to win this election … It would appear that the skeptics of a Romney candidacy were validated through their whole sequence of thoughts (all of which track my own, as I documented from 2009 on) … (A) That if Romney were elected, he’d be a fine and capable leader and likely govern the country quite well, with a managerial skill more than an ideological one, but with a “fix-it” corporate boardroom approach to much of our economic woes, which frankly may have been exactly what the country needed; but, (B) The country would have a very hard time connecting with someone as awkward as Romney personally and more importantly, as filthy freaking rich as Romney; that (C) He would be prone to gaffe after gaffe after gaffe, not because he was undisciplined, but because the types of things he was saying were totally intuitive and natural; and (D) At the end of the day Romney would not be a compelling enough reason to vote Obama out given conservative opposition to Romney’s own health plan and independent distrust of Romney’s alleged lack of empathy for them … I think this is exactly how the entire thing did play out.

Now, it is VERY important for me to point out: I am not aware of anyone who believes that, once the GOP field got set, there was a candidate up there (in the 2011-2012 context we were in) who had a prayer of beating President Obama OTHER THAN Mitt Romney. If they do, they are wrong. I will be the first to say that amongst that group of Saturday Night Live characters, Romney was the nominee who had to happen, though I say that partially because of Gov. Perry’s inexplicably poor showing, most unfortunate back surgery and subsequent medication reality, and his total lack of national strategy and campaign formation. On paper, Perry was formidable; in 2012, he was among the worst of the candidates. Romney was the horse the GOP had to ride on, and no criticism of his likelihood to win the election will ever change the fact that in that putrid field of candidates, he was the best we had.

But therein lies the rub: the election was really over at that time. History can never capture adequately how much damage the Republican primary did to Mitt Romney. He got caught in ridiculous gaffe after ridiculous gaffe (“I’ll be you $10,000 that …”; “corporations are just people”; “my wife LOVES American cars – she has a bunch of Cadillacs”); etc. etc. etc. I wince just typing it all. But gaffes asides, the “I don’t worry about the 47% one” not actually mattering until September of 2012 though uttered much earlier, the primary forced Romney to play small ball for months and months with people he should not have been on stage with. Did our party seriously ever entertain the idea of “9-9-9” as a real economic policy from a pizza company CEO who no one bothered to check had a closet full of sexual harassment cases against him? Does anyone honestly think that a Congressman who took millions of dollars from Fannie Mae as a lobbyist after leaving the Congress in an ethics scandal and then moving on to his third wife after an adult lifetime full of affairs was going to become President (no matter how sharp and awesome his debate eviscerations of poor media morons was)? The book is most interesting in laying out the strengths of Rick Santorum vs. his not-ready-for-primetime candidacy. On one hand, with virtually no resources and no infrastructure, he won a bunch of states and made the primary last months longer than it needed to; on the other hand, he refused to let up from showing the country exactly why he was never going to be electing President even when he was picking up steam. I can actually criticize the Bachman, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum cabal all I want, all of whom I have met and all of whom I have some positive things to say about when we are not discussing their Presidential prospects, but the truth is this says something about why Gov. Romney was never going to win as well: The American people were doing everything they could possibly do to avoid nominating Romney. They tried on every single dress in the closet, some of which were NOT flattering, before finally wearing outfit Romney to the dance. A compelling and attractive candidate who the party could rally around in a meaningful way would not have lingered at 25-30% support throughout the primary. I agree he was our best shot, but this was the worst field in my lifetime, and that tells you so much of the story of 2012.

The book added value in filling in for me what a complete creep and reprehensible human being Jon Huntsman is. I also do not feel that I had a thorough enough understanding of how much damage Donald Trump was doing to the party and to Romney with his constant antics, and I now in hindsight agree with Mike Murphy that had Romney called out Trump in a “Sister Souljah” moment, it may have been good for his campaign. The book also gave me a better look at the facade of a person Barack Obama is, but the masterful campaigner he is, totally disinterested in governing, but obsessed with winning. It would be impressive if it were not so disillusioning.

I have to save my article about the 2016 race for another time and space. It will come down to our candidate, and it will be a long-shot. Gaffes will happen. The media will be unfair. But what can not happen ever again is for the media to be right. I am glad I read Double Down, painful as it may have been, and hope the knowledge of the past – the lesson of this immediate history – can be fully absorbed by the party of Lincoln. The progressive agenda is failing this country. But whether we conservatives like it or not, leadership will be required to re-assert a voice in the national agenda. Reading this book may give those on our side a renewed understanding of what we need to do better. History is on our side.