Book Review: The Battle for America 2008

by John Sides on October 1, 2009

in Campaigns and elections


Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson’s The Battle for America 2008 (here) is—as of this moment—the most complete narrative of the 2008 race. It covers the major and minor events, most of which will be familiar to readers of this blog. More importantly, it uncovers some nice tidbits, based on their reporting during and after the campaign. The book is certainly superior to the book based on Newsweek’s reporting—and in fact contradicts that the book on at least one key point. (See this previous post on the Newsweek book.) It’s pretty lively in general, although sometimes they adopt an odd bird’s-eye-view tone that leads to tip-toeing passages like this:

They [Republicans] reeled from self-inflicted wounds. GOP legislators and lobbyists went to prison on corruption charges. A House Republican was forced to resign over a sex scandal. A Republican senator attracted wide press coverage after an embarrassing incident in a men’s airport bathroom.

Of course, that’s a small matter. I’ll have more to say about the more important ways in which I think the book falls short. But in the meantime, let’s get to the good stuff.

I’ve already noted one interesting anecdote involving Obama and Ted Kennedy.

Here are some others from the Democratic primary.

Despite his own difficulties, Obama was privately sympathetic when Clinton made a rare stumble during a debate at the YearlyKos Convention. Inexplicably, in that debate she had offered a broad defense of Washington lobbyists after her opponents questioned her acceptance of contributions from them. Edwards and Obama immediately criticized her sharply. What could she have been thinking? Axelrod asked Obama. He was struck by Obama’s response. “She made a mistake,” Obama said. “You know what? Nobody can appreciate it but a candidate. This is hard. Running for president is not easy. You get tired, you make mistakes. She made a mistake.” (p. 90)

Balz and Johnson are very good in showing just how badly Clinton was out-campaigned in Iowa.

In October the Clinton team prepared three maps showing where she, Obama, and Edwards had traveled since January 1. She had done a total of 69 stops in 37 of the state’s 99 counties. Obama had held 100 events in 52 countries. Edwards, 141 events in 87 counties. The maps highlighted what everyone knew: Clinton’s opponents were significantly outworking her. (p. 113)

Here is Clinton Iowa director Teresa Vilmain, describing some October 2007 focus groups involving Clinton supporters in Iowa:

“Our people didn’t know caucuses,” Vilmain recalled. “They were totally befuddled.” One elderly woman arriving thinking she was at a caucus. “When she said that you just wanted to throw up,” [caucus director Dave] Barnhart said. Other focus group participants thought they would have to pay to attend the caucuses, or that the caucuses were only open to elected officials or the party elite. Another Clinton staffer called the results an “Oh, shit!” moment for the campaign. (p. 116)

And then on caucus night, this from Tom Vilsack, a Clinton supporter:

…Tom and Christie Vilsack were arriving at the Ward One precinct caucus in Van Allen Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant. “Who are these people?” Vilsack thought. “I’ve never seen these people before.” The population of Mt. Pleasant is about nine thousand. Vilsack’s wife is a native and Vilsack has lived there most of his adult life. For him to walk into a caucus and not recognize scores of people was unnerving. (p. 125)

Regarding the Republican primary, Balz and Johnson suggest that McCain and Huckabee were almost in cahoots to defeat Romney, with Huckabee winning Iowa and thereby weakening Romney enough for McCain to take New Hampshire.

McCain’s hopes depending on Huckabee’s ability to pull of an upset in Iowa…Huckabee’s stunning victory…damaged the only candidate, Romney, with a chance to defeat McCain in New Hampshire. Huckabee was jubilant. So was McCain. When McCain called to offer his congratulations, Huckabee thanked him and said, “Now it’s your turn to kick his butt.” (p. 280)

For the general election, Balz and Johnson report that these were the battteground states, according to Obama’s campaign:

New Mexico
North Carolina
North Dakota

They write:

Plouffe was a major advocate for Indiana. He referred to it as “my dog”—everyone liked to kick it, but it was always there. “How’s my dog doing?” he would ask his staff. (p. 306)

Of course, some of the juiciest stuff comes out of the McCain campaign, especially the vice-presidential side of things. I had never heard about the possible one-term pledge:

Advisors thought picking Lieberman would shake up the race, particularly if coupled with the move McCain was seriously considering: a pledge to serve just one term. Virtually all his top advisers favored the idea. The pledge…resurfaced seriously as part of plans for a possible McCain-Lieberman ticket. (p. 329)

On Palin vetting, this conversation between McCain and A.B. Culvahouse, an attorney in charge of interviewing her, is pretty telling:

“What’s your bottom line?” McCain asked. Culvahouse responded, “John, high risk, high reward.” McCain then replied, “You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk-taker all of my life.” (p. 334)

This next anecdote is where Balz and Johnston contradict the Newsweek book. The Newsweek book takes then then-standard line that Palin was “going rogue” at the end of the campaign and she was to blame for the attacks on Obama based on his “relationship” with Bill Ayers.

In actuality—and this first came out several weeks ago, I believe—the Ayers attacks were scripted by the McCain campaign’s top dogs. Balz and Johnson have a copy of an email from Nicole Wallace to Palin’s traveling party, which included the instruction to:

…deliver this attack as written. Please do not make any changes to the below with out approval from steve [Schmidt] or myself because precision is crucial in our ability to introduce this.

The attack was: “This is not a man who sees America as you and I do—as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.”

Palin was enthusiastic. “Yes yes yes,” she replied in an email response. “Pls let me say this

After she delivered the attack at a Colorado fundraiser, she emailed:

“It was awesome.” (p. 361)

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