You don’t need to DVR Meet the Press every Sunday morning to appreciate Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s chronicle of the 2012 election. Even with two vanilla main characters like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the two journalists behind Game Change have a supporting cast that would make the Coen brothers tremble in jealousy. There’s Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Chris Christie, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann and the rest of the Republican-primary sideshow. With Double Down, the two “inside” journalists pick through the carcasses of the losing side, shed light on the decisions of the victors, and wrap every chapter conclusion with an unwritten postscript that seems to say, “Is this really the best way to pick a leader?”
Double Down examines plenty of what-ifs – Hillary for V.P? – and even more what-will-bes, as it sets the table for Game Change III: 2016, which could feature Hillary Clinton squaring off against combative New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Until then, let’s dig into Double Down’s most-talked-about revelations:
Hillary almost replaced Biden on the ticket
Well, no, not almost. But the White House gave it some serious thought. Biden was loyal to Obama and useful during the first term, but he had crossed wires with the White House on Catholic organizations’ exceptions for women’s birth control as part of Obamacare, and jumped the gun on gay marriage. He was not part of the president’s inner circle, and Halperin and Heilemann compared him and Obama’s doomed Chief of Staff Bill Daley to the ol’ fogey Muppets in the balcony, Waldorf and Statler. Funny then, that Daley – who’d been Biden’s own political director back in 1988 – had argued for Hillary Clinton to take his old boss’s spot on the Democratic ticket in 2012. Clinton had seen her reputation soar in her new duties as Secretary of State, and was beloved by the party. The campaign tested the idea on focus groups, and ultimately decided that Clinton wouldn’t move the needle enough to make the switch. According to the authors, Biden never knew he’d “dodged a bullet he never saw coming.”
Christie sings Soprano
As the Republican candidates flailed away, New Jersey governor Chris Christie came very close to entering the presidential race in order to restore order and unite the party. But even as conservative pundits and Wall Street billionaires began to pressure him to run, his endorsement remained extremely valuable to the other candidates – and he knew it. In January 2012, Romney visited Christie in Princeton, N.J., for dinner and the frontrunner lobbied the governor – who Romney backed in 2009 – to return the favor. Christie saw things differently, and went about marking his territory like Tony Soprano. Not only was he not prepared to pick a horse in the Republican primary yet, but he also insisted that Romney and the rest of the candidates refrain from tapping New Jersey’s fat-cat donors. Essentially, New Jersey was closed, with the governor implying, “Try to raise money in my state and you can kiss my endorsement goodbye.”
Despite their early disagreement, Christie eventually came around and endorsed Romney, and Romney seriously considered Christie as his V.P. But the vetting process turned out to be a horror-show. Romney’s team called the search Project Goldfish and nicknamed all the V.P. candidates as if they were on a fishing expedition – Paul Ryan was Fishconsin, Marco Rubio was Pescado, Rob Portman was Filet-O-Fish, and Christie was Pufferfish – and what they snagged on the hook for Pufferfish was troublesome. They discovered a Department of Justice investigation into Christie’s profligate spending as a U.S. Attorney, his tangential business relationship with Bernie Madoff, a tendency to steer government contracts to close political friends, a defamation suit, potential health problems, and questions about a top female deputy who frequently accompanied the governor. And that was just the things that Christie let them discover; his offices in Trenton were extremely unaccommodating, refusing to answer certain crucial vetting questions. “If Christie had been in the nomination fight against us, we would have destroyed him – he wouldn’t be able to run for governor again,” Halperin and Heilemann wrote, describing the thinking inside the Romney camp. “When you look below the surface, [Romney’s aide Ted] Newton said, it’s not pretty.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Empty Chair
Big surprise… Clint Eastwood didn’t rehearse his bizarre convention speech, in which he introduced Romney by talking to an empty stool that he claimed held President Obama. It was awkward to watch for some, as Eastwood’s vaudeville act ran long and increasingly surreal, like “a doddering uncle as he struggled through a wedding toast.” Eastwood’s inspiration? The Neil Diamond song, “I Am…I Said,” which featured the lyrics, “I am, I said, to no one there. And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” He heard it on the way to the hotel that night! Romney’s handlers pumped Eastwood for what he was going to do and suggested a brief, straight-forward endorsement. But Eastwood didn’t tip his hand… until he took the stage and started asking questions of an Invisible Obama. The crowd was slightly confused, and Romney’s aid Stuart Stevens was horrified: “Stevens’s head was exploding at the sight of the disaster occurring onstage. (He’s gone insane!) Not wanting to upset Mitt, Stevens excused himself, went into another room, and vomited.”
Obama had to learn to play nice with the Big Dog
Obama and President Clinton had a relatively cool relationship after the 2008 Democratic primary, in which 42 was criticized for comments he made about his wife’s challenger. But once Obama won the nomination and subsequently the presidency, the Big Dog just wanted to help and be a part of things. When Obama’s administration hit some rough patches, intermediaries pleaded with 44 to reach out to 42, who felt ignored and unappreciated. A golf outing was arranged, but it didn’t take. Clinton’s slow-paced, mulligan-filled approach to the game clashed with 44’s quick, purposeful play, causing Obama to huff afterwards, “I like him… in doses.” Months later, when the two men were supposed to share a one-on-one dinner to talk politics and the campaign, Obama insisted on inviting others to bear the brunt of Clinton’s attention. Nevertheless, Clinton became Obama’s most effective advocate, especially at the Democratic Convention, where he praised the Administration in glowing terms, and again at the tail-end of the campaign, as Obama left the trail to lead recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy. Eventually, the two were on the same page; Obama’s second phone call after winning the election – the first was to Romney – was to his Democratic predecessor.
Obama’s closer: Tom Hanks
Hollywood is true-blue Democratic, and Obama has relied on the industry to raise millions. (Jeffrey Katzenberg was the party’s biggest rainmaker in 2012.) But it wasn’t just cash that Obama leaned on when he needed an assist. When Timothy Geithner was wavering about staying with the Treasury Department – in part because his wife had doubts – Obama introduced her to Tom Hanks at the president’s 50th party. When Daley saw the Oscar winner charming Mrs. Geithner in the Rose Garden, he turned to Geithner and said, “You’re f—ed – it’s over, okay?”
No Apology – but an asterisk
To lay the groundwork for his second presidential run, Mitt Romney published No Apology in March 2010, presenting his vision for the future. To make a best-selling splash similar to Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue in 2009, Romney hired a publishing expert to amp up book sales. Romney’s personal political-action committee and large Mormon groups purchased copies in bulk, and when he gave speeches, he often forwent his speaking fee in exchange for purchased books. As a result, No Apology debuted at No. 1, but the New York Times tagged it with double-daggers symbols, indicating that the book sales were inflated by suspicious bulk orders.
A Mormon house divided
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman barely made an impact in the Republican primary, never polling higher than low double-digits. But his rivalry with Romney – a distant cousin – was contemptuous and extremely personal. Huntsman, who’d served under the first President Bush, had coveted the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic job and was bitter when Romney ultimately landed it. He endorsed Romney’s rival John McCain in 2008, attracting an angry phone call from Romney where the spurned candidate said, “Your grandfather would be ashamed of you!” Romney refused to let it go, telling possible backers that he’d forgive them if they supported another Republican – as long as it wasn’t Huntsman. Later on, another Mormon, Democratic senator Harry Reid, charged that Romney hadn’t paid income taxes in the last 10 years. Romney’s supporters hit back hard, calling Reid a “dirty liar,” but Reid stuck to his guns. He claimed to have an excellent source on the matter: a Bain investor named Jon Huntsman Sr.
Bachmann’s Lincoln Day letdown
The gaggle of Republican candidates liked to cite Ronald Reagan, but as a group, they didn’t exactly conjure up memories of the Gipper, Lincoln, or even Ike for that matter. Each seemed to have a turn at the top of the polls – Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum – before crumbling. Bachmann and Perry collided in Iowa as the Minnesota congresswoman was on the way down and the ruggedly handsome Texas governor was bracing for launch. Bachmann had just won the Iowa straw poll, knocking out her in-state rival Tim Pawlenty in the process. She was pressured to face-off with Perry, who’d just entered the race, at a Lincoln Day dinner in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. Prepped to confront Perry and mock him for being a glorified cheerleader when he was in college, Bachmann got stage fright when she arrived. She wouldn’t even take the stage until she was told Perry had left. Except that he hadn’t. She flinched when she saw him in front of the stage, and she delivered a distracted and stale speech. “I just totally freaked,” she said afterwards. Her campaign never recovered.
Click here for EW’s review of Double Down.