Monday, January 25, 2010

Game Change: I read, so you don't have to.*

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

by John Heileman and Mark Halperin

I try to stay away from political drama. This takes quite an effort, in San Francisco. 
Even when benign, political passions waste valuable energies, treasures better spent in areas where we have some control. The fact that we have the vote feeds our natural fascination with our own opinions, no matter how impotent or ill-founded they are. I get wrought up over a politician or issue just like anyone else, but let's get real, folks: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Neither does 99.9% of the American electorate. 
I suspect that most of the people paid to comment on politics are equally clueless. They aren't much closer to the action than we are.

Heileman and Halperin's book is a fascinating education in the reality of politics. They do know what they're talking about. The authors focus on the actual players. The first thing I noticed in their narrative was the absence of policy talk. The voters care about policies. Their rulers—both current and aspiring—care about power. Who's got it? How can I get it? How can I keep it? They think about power the way misers think about money. Power is an end in itself; what they'll do with it is a secondary concern for them.

Of course, the candidate must pretend to live in the voters' world and share their concerns. This is especially difficult in primary races. Imagine being Barack Obama and debating Hillary Clinton. You must convince the audience that your proposal for subsidized health care is completely different—and better—than hers. Ditto your proposed withdrawal from Iraq. You must serve them the exact same meal, on slightly different dishes, and say, "You'll like mine much better!"

Difficult as this dance is, we're watching professionals here. Most of the actors are so skillful, the only real excitement occurs on those rare occasions when they fall down, or forget their lines. This is the reason we loved watching Sarah Palin. She was not an actress, and couldn't become one overnight, despite the McCain team's best efforts. Forced onstage anyway, she had a crack-up almost every day. It was like watching a motor track race with a big smash-up in each lap.

Game Change is a riveting story. The authors end the book with an account of President-elect Obama's pleading with Hillary Clinton, to serve as his Secretary of State. Obama comes off pragmatic and stylish as usual. 

With the drama of Game Change fresh in my mind, I wondered how much will actually change during Obama's administration. Before the US economy slid into a ditch, the issue Obama raised highest, the one he counted on to elevate him above Clinton and McCain, was Iraq and the larger war on terror. Obama would bring a bold, new approach to these efforts, reversing President Bush's grave errors in judgment.

Today there are more American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than there were at any time in Bush's administration—thousands more. Osama Bin Laden is still alive. Will US involvement in either country end, anytime soon? If anyone thinks this, I've yet to hear from them. Perhaps a president's options are fewer than we mere mortals imagine. Perhaps putting a new man at the desk does not necessarily expand those options.

* I listened to the audiobook, obtainable on

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