The problem with campaign books
Marc Ambinder offhandedly remarks that "Political scientists aren't going to like" Game Change -- John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's compendium of reporting and, well, gossip from the 2008 election -- "because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press."
Putting aside the casual dismissal of political science, I'm skeptical that these tell-all campaign books record the elections as they're actually lived. So far, reporting on the book has revealed embarrassing sections on Bill and Hillary Clinton, John and Elizabeth Edwards and John and Cindy McCain. The Obamas come out relatively unscathed. That's common to this genre, of course. Losers come out badly. Winners come out well. Funny how that happens.
It's all sort of the truth, of course. It's not too much of a surprise that the Edwards campaign was a volatile, chaotic operation as suspicions about Rielle Hunter spread. But it's worth thinking through the incentives of the people interviewing with Heilemann and Halperin. Say your candidate lost. For one thing, you have to build a narrative that ends with your candidate losing. And given that you didn't sign onto the campaign thinking your candidate didn't have a chance, you have to explain what deviated from your optimistic take -- what went wrong, in other words -- rather than what was always likely to happen.
To the people running the campaign, the election is a story of, well, the campaign. Staff dysfunction will play a big part in that narrative because, well, you were on the staff, and staff dysfunction is very important to people who are part of it. The failures of the candidate, of course. He or she wasn't anything like the politician that the public thought they knew. The failures of strategy, because that's what the staffers were responsible for.
But as the political scientists will tell you, the data don't support the idea that how staffers "live" campaigns is particularly connected to how campaigns end up. Elections are primarily a story of the country, not the campaign. Of unemployment and demographics and events. You see that in the treatment of the winner. People remember the staffing dysfunctions, but they're delivered with a chuckle. The candidate's foibles don't distract from his virtues. Because the staffers are constructing a narrative backward from ongoing governance, the campaign is put into perspective. As the Obama folks have more than learned by now, the campaign was not about the campaign.
If all these books were relegated to their proper role as an interesting substory in the larger tale of the election, that would be fine. But they're not. Game Change has owned the headlines for the past few days because, well, campaign staffers and campaign reporters agree on at least one thing: It's all about the campaign. Beyond that, it's all about the ratings.
Dozens of reporters have now read the book, extracting the "juiciest" tidbits. If there's a thesis in the book, I'm not aware of it, as none of them have mentioned it. But I know a lot about suspicions that Bill Clinton was having another affair and names John McCain called his wife and archaic terms Harry Reid uses for African-Americans. The guys who stock supermarket magazines know gossip sells, and political reporters, bloggers, and hosts are not immune from the insight.
That's why I don't trust these books. The incentives, at every level, are a mess. The staffers are embittered and looking for their current jobs and biased and rationalizing. The writers know exactly what makes a tell-all into a media sensation. The reporters covering the book know exactly which parts will get ratings. And then the public learns about the campaign through this odd exercise, which is anything but a coordinated effort to inform them.
January 12, 2010; 2:18 PM ET
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