- - Monday, July 22, 2013


By Dan Balz
Viking, $32.95, 383 pages

With a sharp eye for detail, crisp and often evocative prose, an understanding of politics and politicians, and the experience gained over decades as a thoughtful old-school journalist, The Washington Post’s Dan Balz recreates the rhythms of the grueling presidential year of 2012. On the Democratic side, the interest was primarily in the new techniques and technologies perfected by the Obama campaign, and the ideological arguments the president seemed frequently to have with himself. (For what it’s worth, judging by his acceptance speech, the liberal won.)

On the Republican side, where most of the drama took place, the interest focused largely on the ebbs and flows of the Romney campaign as it crept toward the nomination, seemingly inevitable, but always slipping away just as Mitt Romney was about to grasp it. And one by one, through the protracted string of primaries, a sometimes strange troupe of Republicans took the stage, among them the inscrutable Chinese-speaking Jon Huntsman and the startlingly ill-prepared Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who took a spectacular pratfall early on and quickly dropped out.

There were Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty, about whom the most interesting thing Mr. Balz wrote may be that in the Machine Shed restaurant in Des Moines, “Pawlenty cut into a cinnamon bun the size of a loaf of bread.”

There was Rick Santorum, who fought through to the end, never quite winning enough, but managing to inflict ideological damage, forcing Mr. Romney to keep punching with his right hand, while also trying to jab at President Obama with the left; and Newt Gingrich, a master politician who could still play the game at the highest level, calling down the conservative thunder in South Carolina, and for a time scrambling the conventional campaign wisdom.

The presidential campaign itself, comparatively a relatively brief stretch run, kicked off for the Republicans with the Clint Eastwood empty-chair convention, and never quite achieved balance. With the choice of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as vice president, the hope was that the economy would be the defining issue. But the campaign never reached that level, in part bedeviled by the candidate’s tendency to make joking comments — “‘I like to fire people,’” or “‘I’m not concerned about the very poor.’” And there was the planted recorder at a fundraiser in Florida that caught the “47 percent” remark, all of which added up to a “massive hit” by reinforcing the negative image created by Mr. Romney’s opponents.

” ‘Let’s make the debate project the Manhattan Project of our campaign,’ ” said Mr. Romney, and in the first debate in Denver, against a listless opponent, he won a startling victory. The polls tightened, and once again it all seemed in play. But in the second debate Mr. Romney got tangled in a semantic argument about White House reactions to Benghazi, CNN’s Candy Crowley intervened decisively on the president’s side, Mr. Romney lost his momentum and the rest was academic.

The “Manhattan Project” had fizzled. Mr. Obama won the third debate handily, and went on to win the election “in almost precisely the way the team in Chicago had predicted.”

As for the future, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s comments are especially interesting. While Mr. Romney and other candidates were asking for his endorsement in 2012, Mr. Christie tells Mr. Balz, he was being urged by influential national figures to make the run himself. Among them was Henry Kissinger, who in remarks at a breakfast in New York attended by corporate and financial leaders for the purpose of persuading the governor to run, told him: “‘Being a successful president is about two things, courage and character. You have both and your country needs you.”

Whether or not that rings true, with both parties up for grabs, guesswork about potential candidates will feed the political chit-chat for the next three years. Some things will stay the same or intensify — the deep divisions that result in concentrating on getting out the base, rather than courting the undecided; increasing reliance of major news organizations on polls, so that as papers shrink and reporters disappear, the polls themselves become the story; and in place of traditional sources the emergence of the new media in what Mr. Balz calls “the age of twitter.”

During the debate in Denver, he writes, there were some 10.3 million tweets, as “New technologies and social media blossomed even more fully into a central feature of politics in 2012.”

No doubt it will be more so in 2016. But let’s hope, before the curtain finally comes down, that there’ll still be room for at least one more thoroughly reported and thoughtful book by an old school journalist such as Dan Balz.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).



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