Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s sequel to their 2010 bestseller Game Change, provides a near-perfect distillation of the mindset of what bloggers call “the Village.” Like Bob Woodward—their role model and only real competition when it comes to metaphorical shoe size—the double H’s make their own rules. They pay next to no attention to actual issues and none whatsoever to traditional methods of sourcing and evidence. They write sui generis sentences filled with made-up, often mixed-up words. And they burn their interviewees when it suits their needs and then threaten them with more of the same should anyone have a problem with that.* But because they have managed to create a franchise that sells gazillions of books and spawns HBO movies and makes many millions of dollars, they get away with all of it. Politico’s editors might as well throw away all their silly staff memos and simply instruct their worker bees to double down on Double Down (ideally twice a day).
As with its predecessor, Double Down deserves scholarly scrutiny not for its (admittedly) gold-standard gossip, but for what it reveals about the inner life of American politics. It consists of nearly 500 pages of pure Village Vulcan mind-meld. Alas, I can only do justice to a tiny portion of this in a column, and so I will focus on just one aspect: the authors’ contempt for liberals and the manner in which this skews their presentation of the facts.
The book’s description of President Obama’s apparent anger over a leak to “two authors writing a book on the 2012 campaign” without naming themselves is itself annoying, but the substance of Obama’s lengthy complaint to his staff is what really ought to interest us. Speaking before a large contingent of his re-election team in September 2011, the president expressed his anguish, according to their sources, over the fact that “his progressive impulses had too often been trumped by the demands of pragmatism. That he had trimmed his sails in just the way his critics on the left had charged.”
And yet this “pragmatism” of which the authors speak is little more than Obama’s consistent capitulation to the very same right-wing ideological assumptions this narrative so frequently adopts. Recall that in June 2011, Mark Halperin was suspended from MSNBC for referring to President Obama on live television as “kind of a dick” for the crime of demanding even minimal revenue increases from Republicans in exchange for embracing their demands for draconian cuts in the social safety net. Recall also that Halperin, whose past coverage of Karl Rove has verged on the hagiographic, traveled on a pilgrimage to the land of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to state on behalf of himself and his colleagues that “we understand that we’ve got to not be liberal.” Of 2008’s election reporting, he detected a “disgusting failure” present in its “extreme bias [and] extreme pro-Obama coverage.”
Halperin’s contempt for liberals and liberalism permeates almost every page of Double Down. In describing the clownish attempt by the group Americans Elect to “drag the political conversation to the sensible center,” he and his co-author admire the ridiculous organization’s “array of heavy-hitting allies,” almost all of whom are fiscal conservatives and foreign-policy hawks. And yet these figures are portrayed by H&H as deeply “concerned that the two-party duopoly had run its course, that the Republican and Democratic parties were so tightly in the grip of the far right and the far left that good governance had become impossible.” This is “blame both sides” bullshit in its Platonic essence. Just which “far left” Democrats are in charge of anything, anywhere—save perhaps The Nation—is not explained. And yet these famed “heavy hitters” from the “sensible center” believe themselves to be living in a world in which Ralph Nader and Occupy Wall Street are no less powerful and influential than Ted Cruz and the Tea Party.
This bias repeatedly blinds their analysis. The authors credit Obama’s enthusiasm for a “grand bargain” with recalcitrant Republicans to his reaction to a bunch of rich Wall Streeters who whined to him about his unfriendly rhetoric—not his policies, mind you, but his rhetoric—at a 2011 high-dollar New York donor dinner. H&H then report that Obama “inflicted significant damage” on himself with “young voters, independent women, and low-income whites” with his willingness to cave on so many crucial social safety net programs during these same negotiations. But a few hundred pages later, when Obama’s small donor base repays the favor with muted enthusiasm for his re-election, the authors attribute this drop-off exclusively, and without supporting evidence, to voters “thinking that the president faced little peril from Romney.”
Unsupported right-wing assumptions creep in regarding foreign policy as well. For instance, the authors blame the Romney campaign for failing to exploit the events in Benghazi, adding, “In truth, the Benghazi tragedy was a horrendous failure on the part of the administration.” Their evidence? “[T]he unrest unspooling across the Middle East was just the kind of externality that had worried the president’s team for a year.” So what exactly was the “horrendous failure” again? Simply to ask such a question is, in the mindset of this narrative, to demonstrate one’s naïveté—or as Halperin would have it, one’s “extreme bias.” The shamefully dishonest reporting on Benghazi by CBS’s 60 Minutes, which resulted in a retraction and a reluctant apology by the network, demonstrates just how effective the endless repetition of Republican talking points—their working of the refs—has been on the mainstream media. In fact, virtually no one knows what really happened in Benghazi that day, least of all our authors. And yet it is just such unchallenged assumptions that loom the largest in this story, and in the political system whose flaws it so entertainingly mirrors.
* This is according to the former senior communications adviser to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. The authors dispute it.
In October, Reed Richardson had a blog post in which he explored the “blame both sides” bullshit.