- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

If you are a political junkie still going through withdrawal after the recent elections, your fix has arrived.

“The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008,” by Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, is the ultimate inside-baseball, behind-the-scenes book. It is a well-crafted, though occasionally overwritten, effort to explain the elements of a successful presidential campaign.

The book is part history lesson and part how-to guide. Its authors assume their readers already have more than a passing knowledge of the subject matter. Think of it as an extended version of the Note, ABC News’ daily online political analysis. That the authors use that technique is not much of a surprise considering that one of them, Mr. Halperin, is ABC News’ political director and chief author of the Note. Mr. Harris is the top editor of the soon-to-be published Capitol Hill newspaper the Politico and a former political editor of The Washington Post.

They explain how to navigate the land mines that populate the road to the Oval Office, especially the 24-hour news cycle and the increased power of the online and cable media. The book lumps many of the influential media outlets, such as the Drudge Report and Fox News Channel, into the category the authors call “The Freak Show.”

Though the information would be helpful to any presidential wannabe, the authors seem to buy into the conventional wisdom that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, are the people to beat for the nomination of their respective parties.

Mr. Halperin and Mr. Harris have a chatty writing style and draw on access to some of the top politicians and strategists, including former President Clinton and Karl Rove. They were also given confidential strategy memoranda from previous campaigns.

As a result, the book sometimes reads like a business school case study as it examines the pros and cons of the techniques used by Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rove.

The authors praise Mr. Clinton’s approach of taking centrist positions on many issues because it enabled him to win battles in the short term. The downside of that modus operandi is that it did not leave much of an ideological legacy that could help build the Democrats’ long-term health. Some of Mr. Clinton’s success was so much the result of his personal skills that when less able candidates, such as Al Gore and John Kerry, borrowed from his playbook, they failed.

Mr. Halperin and Mr. Harris contend that part of what makes the former president so successful is his mastery of the game of politics.

“Politics is often a game of odd bounces and close calls that are outside a candidate’s control. But his win was mostly the result of rational forces… He worked hard, showed self-confidence and developed an intelligent basis for his campaign. These trade secrets, to be sure, may sound a bit like Boy Scout mottoes for presidential candidates. But good intentions and good deeds can pay off — sometimes,” the authors write.

Mr. Rove’s strategy of taking strong ideological positions works, according to the Halperin/Harris analysis, because it rallies the base and draws clear fault lines between the parties. The approach, which has earned Mr. Rove the nickname “evil genius,” leaves little room for error and collapses if a significant portion of your core supporters is angry and if the other party does a better job at wooing centrist voters.

“Rove has been more tenacious and more intense than most political strategists. But he has advanced his goals, according to both admiring colleagues and bitter competitors, in much the same way as other political operatives. Rove deserves unique notice for one reason: He is an especially good political strategist. Even if one wants to believe that some of Rove’s tactics and motives have been evil, they are mostly irrelevant to the reasons he has been a winner,” the authors write.

They would have produced an even better book had they spent more time examining the impact of these campaign techniques on the ability of presidents to govern effectively. Mr. Clinton’s mishandling of the various scandals that beset his administration and President Bush’s missteps in handling the war in Iraq show the perils of running a government the same way you run a campaign.

On balance, “The Way to Win” is a worthwhile instruction manual and work of political analysis.

Claude R. Marxis a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and author of a chapter on media and politics in the forthcoming book “The Sixth-Year Itch.”

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