- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election

By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson


The continued decline of print journalism undoubtedly will result in less shoe-leather reporting on major political events and policy issues. There will be fewer institutions (like The Washington Times and The Washington Post, among others) that will bankroll such projects, and the country will be much the poorer for it.

One is reminded of the advantages of such reportage on every page of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election,” a riveting behind-the-scenes account of last year’s seminal race for the presidency.

Dan Balz, the Post’s chief political reporter, and Haynes Johnson, a University of Maryland professor and former Post reporter and columnist, recount key events and themes without getting bogged down by minutiae.

Mr. Balz was on the ground with the candidates, and his reportorial skills netted him a treasure trove of information that no blogger will likely ever match. Mr. Johnson’s experience as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in past campaigns and his historical insights also are tough to match. What the authors lack in literary style is more than made up for by their insights and analyses.

On the Democratic side, Mr. Balz and Mr. Johnson break down strategic triumphs and failures in the campaigns of both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and take you inside the rooms where the decisions were made. Though Mr. Obama and his staff were more accessible to the authors (Mrs. Clinton declined a post-campaign interview), this doesn’t result in overly fawning coverage.

While the authors clearly respect Mr. Obama’s intellect and political skills and those of his staff, he comes across as a talented man who was often at the right place at the right time, not as a quasi-superhero.

The authors’ descriptions of how Mr. Obama’s staff beat out their counterparts on the Clinton campaign in both organization and fundraising will be of interest to political junkies and anyone who is interested in management case studies. However, their explanation of how Mr. Obama upset Mrs. Clinton, first in Iowa and then for the nomination, focuses on the complex and unpredictable nature of presidential campaigns.

“Obama put together a phenomenal organization, but Clinton’s became extraordinarily capable as well. She lost because she wasted months by picking the wrong staff and because of the continuous internal arguments over a winning strategy. Perhaps most critical of all, she was never able to match the energy and enthusiasm that Obama inspired among new young voters,” they write.

Mr. Balz and Mr. Johnson devote far less time to the fight for the Republican Party nomination because it was resolved more quickly, the personalities involved weren’t as strong and, given former President George W. Bush’s unpopularity, whoever won the contest would enter a general election as the underdog. The title of one of the chapters, “Looking for Reagan,” sums up the uphill task the party faced.

The most engaging story was Sen. John McCain’s rise from the political dead after squandering his initial status as the front-runner in an almost Hillaryesque fashion. Fortunately for him, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lacked the skills and political appeal to be an Obamaesque challenger.

Mr. McCain’s victory proved pyrrhic because of the resulting despair of the Republican Party’s base and the momentum Democrats brought from their exciting campaign. He tried to stir things up — and succeeded in the short term — by picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who confounded many of his allies and adversaries.

But the authors contend that one could see the selection as evidence either of Mr. McCains courage or pigheadedness. They recount a conversation the candidate had with Arthur B. Culvahouse, the D.C. lawyer who headed the vice-presidential recruitment process. Mr. Culvahouse described Mrs. Palin as “high-risk, high-reward.” The candidate replied, “You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk-taker all of my life.”

Almost everything else between then and the election played out as if it was Mr. Obama’s to lose. The ingredients included a political environment influenced by a sagging economy as well as Mr. Obama’s charisma and appealing message. Mix in Mr. McCain’s mistakes and the media’s mostly adoring treatment of the Democratic nominee, and the result is a recipe for a Democratic landslide that wouldn’t have been altered even if the Republican Party had found a political chef with skills comparable to those of Julia Child.

The overall contest, however, lived up to the hype, and it’s hard to see how another book will surpass “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” as the contest’s definitive account.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.

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