This volume with its awful self-help title is a smart, saavy but messy
hodgepodge of a book. The authors - Mark Halperin, political director of
ABC News (and creator of "The Note" on ABCNews.com) and John F. Harris,
national political editor of The Washington Post - awkwardly couch their
narrative as advice to a White House aspirant, and they use their skills
as veteran reporters to identify the campaign tactics that can help a
candidate survive the hardball game of presidential politics and those
traits that can doom a candidate to ignominy and defeat.
Drawing upon private campaign memos, White House communications and
interviews with former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick
Cheney and the Republican strategist Karl Rove, the authors try to
deconstruct the political techniques of President Bush and Mr. Clinton,
while analyzing the effect that an increasingly polarized and toxic
electoral environment is likely to have on the 2008 presidential
Much of the authors' advice borders on the obvious: keep control of your
image, play offense instead of defense, stay on message. And some of
their arguments - for instance, "party nominations and the presidency
itself usually are won by the candidate with the most impressive
substantive claim on the job" - are contradicted by their own analysis
of recent events. Their assessment of the Republican Party's strengths
echoes observations made by Thomas B. Edsall in his recent book
"Building Red America," and their chapters on the rise of the new media
and the Bush White House's willful efforts to undermine the mainstream
press owe a decided debt to books and articles by writers like Frank
Rich, Ken Auletta, Craig Crawford and Eric Boehlert.
When Mr. Halperin and Mr. Harris turn to an examination of particular
tactics used by Democrats and Republicans in the last couple of election
cycles, however, the results can be revealing, shedding retrospective
light on Mr. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004, and casting new light on
the possible outcome of next week's midterm elections.
As the authors see it there are now "two leading brands" of political
strategy in America today: Clinton Politics and Bush Politics. "Clinton
Politics," they write "is the politics of the center. It holds that
Americans for the most part, with the exception of irate groups at the
edges, are less interested in ideology than in practical solutions to
basic problems. People would prefer for politics to be polite, civil and
compromise-minded. And they would get their wish, Clinton maintained,
were it not for the cynical maneuverings of interest groups and
operatives who deliberately contrive to invent and exaggerate conflicts
and make people frustrated and distrustful."
Mr. Clinton, they add, saw the job of president as being "a national
synthesizer," someone who could soar above partisan conflicts and unify
Despite Mr. Bush's talk about "compassionate conservatism" and his
pledge to govern as a "uniter not a divider," he has promoted what the
authors of this book call "the politics of the base." As developed by
Karl Rove, they write, this doctrine "holds that people are angry in the
main because the issues and values dividing Americans are real and
consequential": "A successful leader will stand forthrightly on one side
of a grand argument. Then he or she will win that argument by sharpening
the differences and rallying his most intense supporters to his side."
Mr. Bush, they add, sees himself as "a national clarifier," someone who
regards dividing the electorate as "an acceptable avenue to a
consequential presidency, one that would make the country's policies and
institutions more conservative than they had been for generations."
Each brand of politics, the authors write, has its drawbacks. With its
emphasis on high approval ratings and building a durable centrist
majority, Clinton Politics can lead to "cautious, defensive-minded
maneuvering" and " 'small-ball' policies that squander the true power of
the office." But while Bush Politics "can be a brutally effective
strategy for winning elections," Mr. Harris and Mr. Halperin go on, it
"entails risks for the long haul": it can lead to arrogant, blindered
policy-making that stomps out dissension and avoids debate; it can make
for a brittle, unresponsive presidency; and it can lead to greater
polarization in the country at large.
In recent years the country has grown more polarized: in part because
the Bush team has relentlessly played to its base; in part because
President Clinton's Monica problems fanned the emotions of his
adversaries and fueled a political culture of attack and revenge; in
part because the explosion of Internet use, along with 24-hour cable
news and talk radio, has created a filter-free media environment in
which anger, salaciousness, invective and extreme views flourish.
Mr. Halperin and Mr. Harris call this new-media world the "Freak Show,"
and they argue that navigating the Freak Show - with its focus on the
personal and the prurient - will be essential to presidential hopefuls
In the authors' view, "the New Media overwhelmingly favors
conservatives," not only because of the success of Fox News, the Drudge
Report and radio talk shows like Rush Limbaugh's, but also because
Rove-trained Republicans have learned how to manipulate the Freak Show.
"In addition to maximizing the potential of the New Media," Mr. Harris
and Mr. Halperin write, "this required aggressively moving to
delegitimize and control the Old Media; promoting a shared stake in
success with political allies; insulating their side from Freak Show
attacks; and using the Freak Show to devastate opponents." This is why,
they suggest, the Swift boat attacks worked to undermine Senator John
Kerry's reputation, while questions about Mr. Bush's Texas Air National
Guard service and youthful drug use never appeared to stick. This is why
the image of Vice President Al Gore as a "phony exaggerator" took root
in many voters' minds, while concerns about Mr. Bush's relative lack of
experience did not.
Like many reporters before them, Mr. Harris and Mr. Halperin point out
that the Republicans enjoy other advantages as well, including a
plethora of money for the air wars on television; a strong
organizational infrastructure (rooted in influential think tanks, vocal
advocacy groups and a committed volunteer effort) that makes for a
formidable ground game; and technologically innovative means of staying
in touch with followers and finding potential supporters. Considerable
credit in these areas, they argue, must go to Mr. Rove, who "spent
nearly 30 years preparing for a successful White House run by taking on
without intermission a series of jobs that allowed him to develop
political ties to, and a sophisticated understanding of, every state in
The Republicans, the authors observe, invested millions of dollars to
mine commercial databases, which helped the Bush campaign take aim at
receptive voters (by identifying matters like "anger points," be "they
late-term abortions or out-of-control legal awards"). And in 2002 the
G.O.P. developed a "72-Hour Project" to turn out sympathetic voters in
the last three days before the Congressional midterm elections. In
addition, Mr. Halperin and Mr. Harris observe, Mr. Rove's detailed
knowledge of the political climate, state laws and each state's
electorate, enabled him to evaluate what "ballot measures might channel
voter turnout," and to help recruit Republican candidates who might
produce "reverse coattails" for Mr. Bush.
It was Mr. Rove, in the wake of the Reagan revolution, who "believed
that there was a vast amount of unfinished business and untapped
grievance on the right, waiting for Bush to run on." And it was Mr. Rove
who "envisioned a Bush presidency that would transform the way Americans
viewed government, and that would allow the Republican Party's
principles to dominate American politics for decades."
That Mr. Bush's approval ratings have now plummeted and Republicans are
facing an uphill battle in next week's elections raises a host of
questions. For instance: To what degree did the tactics designed by Mr.
Rove and instituted by Mr. Bush shape this White House's approach to
governance and inform its embattled policies on Iraq, Katrina, Social
Security reform and the deficit? In what ways have political strategies
on the part of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush shaped the successes
and failures of their administrations?
Mr. Halperin and Mr. Harris raise such questions in this useful if lumpy
volume, but never really answer them. But then, maybe, those are matters
for another book.
Morals or machinations? That's the question Democrats will have to wrestle with when they try to take back the White House in 2008. On the one hand, there's the high ground of moral certitude, an option earnestly promoted by David Callahan's "The Moral Center." On the other, there's the lure of political calculation, an approach vigorously promoted by Mark Halperin and John F. Harris' "The Way to Win" and Thomas F. Schaller's "Whistling Past Dixie." The answer, of course, lies somewhere in between.
Which way to lean, however, is a bit trickier. But American politics being what it is — nasty and brutish — these books make clear that the Democrats would benefit from a bit more strategizing and a bit less sermonizing.
Harris, the Washington Post's national political director, and Halperin, ABC News's political director, are thoroughly convincing on this point. Embracing the adage that it's the medium and not the message that matters, they describe in engaging prose the recent emergence of "The Freak Show." The Freak Show is Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. The Freak Show is Fox News. The Freak Show is, most influentially, the Drudge Report. There is certainly a Democratic version of the Freak Show, but there's no denying that Republicans have mastered it. They own (often literally) the New Media.
The assertion that conservatives have become expert at aggressive, in-your-face politicking is hardly a news flash, but where Harris and Halperin break ground is in their assessment of the Freak Show's political consequences. No longer, they argue, is it enough to craft an honest political strategy and defend it with the occasional sucker punch. Nastiness must now be integrated into the strategy itself. The winner in 2008, the authors claim, must address "the elemental changes in media and technology that have reshaped current politics." Political scheming cannot merely be countered. It's got to be internalized.
They make this case most poignantly through a gripping, blow-by-blow description of the utter emasculation of John Kerry. Within hours of Kerry's nomination, the onslaught began. First came the report of Kerry's $150 haircut at a French salon. Then the snowboarding. Then his wife Teresa's 2002 reference to her late husband John Heinz as "the love of my life." And then came the knockout punch — the Swift Boat attack on his service in Vietnam. "This strategy," write the authors, "worked as if plotted play by play on a locker room chalkboard." Welcome to the Freak Show.
This has been so effective because, as the authors show repeatedly, the Democrats have been mired in the substance-driven realm of the "Old Media." And the Old Media — the major news anchors and daily newspapers — is often outmaneuvered bythe bloggers, radio-show hosts and talking heads whose "vast powers of simplification and amplification" have changed the rules. "Someday," write Halperin and Harris, "an enlightened public will punish the politics of cynicism and destruction." But not today, not tomorrow . . . and certainly not in 2008.
Sleepytime down South
Thomas Schaller's "Whistling Past Dixie" isn't as entertaining as "The Way to Win," but it, too, makes the argument that if the Democrats hope to prevail in 2008, strategy must trump substance. Schaller, a political science professor, rests his case on a bold but well-supported calculation that the party should ignore the South.
"The pickings are slim in Dixie," he explains, because Southerners "hold distinctly conservative values and have long prided themselves for . . . resisting the social transformations unfolding elsewhere across the nation." This generalization will surely rankle Southern Democrats (including African Americans), but Schaller's sketches of Southern history and demography are generally convincing. "Why bother," he asks, "to leap the wide cultural chasm to reach them?"
One might question whether the Democrats are really that concerned with the South to begin with. For all the statistics that clog his book, Schaller never quantifies exactly how much time, money and effort the party is sinking into what most political observers already acknowledge is a tough sell. He claims, credibly, that when Democrats moderate their positions on gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion, they divert their attention from wavering voters in "purple" states, such as Wisconsin, Montana, Ohio, Colorado and Arizona, who are more interested in land conservation, immigration and job outsourcing. But is it only the South that moderate Democrats have in mind when they make such concessions? Might it not be "suburbanites" or members of "the moral majority" — who are not exclusively located below the Mason-Dixon line?
According to David Callahan in "The Moral Center," all this nit-picking over geography and media strategy misses the point. The problem is not procedural, he insists, but moral. Callahan, a fellow at the public policy center Demos, hammers away at what he identifies as a conceptual problem at the core of contemporary Republican politics. He argues strenuously that untrammeled capitalism and "values" — both of which are central to conservative ideology — are inherently incompatible. This is pretty high-minded stuff, but Callahan does a clear enough job of explaining how capitalism transforms family values, sexual mores and the work ethic — that is, much in the same way that fire transforms gasoline. The upshot is no different than the one that Daniel Bell identified 30 years ago in "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism." The only solution, as Callahan restates it for our particular political moment, is for all Americans to embrace liberalism, because "it is liberals who have historically fought to push back laissez-faire values and to promote the common good."
But even if one is sympathetic with Callahan's idealism, this sort of moralizing seems an unlikely prescription for what ails the Democrats. When he writes, for example, that liberals must "find their gift for critiquing the moral downsides of capitalism in ways that are in sync with America's unique political and cultural conditions," it's hard not to glance at Callahan's author photo and notice that he was still a kid when Jimmy Carter delivered his "malaise" speech, in which he asked Americans to contemplate "the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation."
Carter's speech was a risky — and unsuccessful — gamble back in 1979. In the age of the Freak Show, it wouldn't stand a chance.
"He who is not against us is for us," the Gospel of Mark observes. This is as succinct a statement as exists of the stealthy and smart presidential contest already under way between the junior senator from New York and the senior senator from Arizona.
Of 300 million Americans, startlingly few don't know who Hillary Clinton and John McCain are, and even fewer are against both of them, which, after Mark, means that we are overwhelmingly for them. As a couple, they are already in royal purple. As rivals, we approach a smash-up that will match Lord and Lady Macbeth.
An appetizing new book, "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008," from two veteran White House watchers, Mark Halpern of ABC News and John Harris of the Washington Post, overflows with advice to the start-up candidate for the presidency, and it elucidates the electioneering of Bill Clinton and George Bush. But the heart of the book is celebration of the fact that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain are irresistible and unstoppable.
Messrs. Halpern and Harris identify dozens of what they call "Trade Secrets" to be heeded by a presidential campaign, such as "Beware the Internet's low bar for scandalous news," or "Do not try to be a serious presidential candidate and a talking head at the same time," or, my favorite in the book because it is both simple and ironic, "Being nice helps you win presidential campaigns." They are also keen to identify what they call the "Freak Show," which is the public collapse of decorum in the canvas so that it is considered clever partisanship to speak poisonously, behave dishonorably, and blame-shift like Fagin to win. However, each time Messrs. Halpern and Harris follow their experience to recount the do's and do nots of a sinewy campaign, they qualify their remarks when speaking of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain. For example, in praise of President Bush's preparation for 2000, Messrs. Halpern and Harris confide, "And if you are reading these words and plan to run in 2008, you cannot begin to imagine how far behind you are now compared to where Bush was in 1999. (With the usual exceptions of the Gentleman from Arizona and the Gentlelady from New York, if they make the race.)"
This consistent exceptionalism for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain challenged me as I read, and I began to see that for Messrs. Halpern and Harris, the nomination is over and we are in the early stages of a struggle that will recast our national politics. Rules are for everyone else who has Potomac fever, such as Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor Bloomberg, Newt Gingrich, Senator Biden or the new fad, Senator Obama. Indeed, this book is especially for rookies like the junior senator from Illinois, who makes an unforced error by hinting at his candidacy while he is a talking-head.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain are not mortal, predictable, coherent candidates. Senators Clinton and McCain, with their radioactive negatives and cautionary pasts, might actually be the way to displace the "Freak Show" that discredits us. Mrs. Clinton twangs like an untamed shrew — she is anti-transparent, anti-maternal, anti-meaning. She is married to a fidgety Falstaff and related to truants as brothers. But all these flaws, because they should have wrecked her ambition, make her triumphant: See her once hit the stage, and you see what rock star meant in 1969.
Mr. McCain is impulsively contrary: He has lived a fast-moving life of violent risk and bad luck that should have buried him nine times. Not only is he energetic but also he wants to lead the Republican Party that he enjoys bashing and burning. Senator McCain cannot not bait the Bush White House, he cannot not goad the most potent elements of the right wing, and he cannot not confuse the media that wants to mythologize him. In sum, Mr. McCain could take the platform holding President Ahmadinejad's hand and we would wait to hear this yarn before we judged.
"He who is not against us is for us," the Gospel observes, and that may be the only way we can choose between the superbly skilled and engaged Senators Clinton and McCain over the next 25 months. The Constitution insists they can't both win. This guarantees that, after they individually dispense with their rivals like mayflies, their final clash will exhaust our republic. And the president-elect will be the one of them who has fewer against him or her right up to the last hour of the polls on the day we vote.
Book in a nutshell: In a blow-by-blow account - including memos from previous election cycles, little-known intelligence about past campaign strategies and interviews with the principals - ABC News political director Mark Halperin and Washington Post editor John F. Harris offer a deep analysis of the trade secrets any contender will need to secure the highest office in the land. The tome's brilliant research includes detailed biographies of political powerhouses that have navigated the political scene, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, whose interest in the Office of the President is a poorly guarded secret in D.C.
The authors have even coined a term for contemporary politics: The Freak Show. They postulate that the intersection of Old Media (newspapers, broadcast news) and New Media (the Internet, talk radio) has created a perfect storm of scandal and instant playback of a candidate's mistakes that can destroy contenders overnight.
Some of the most fascinating tidbits include previously uncirculated information about the Denver-born Karl Rove, touted by the authors as possibly the most famous presidential adviser in American history. From his his humble beginnings in direct mail to his involvement with the College Republicans in the '70s to his accumulation of a massive network of political operatives, it's all laid out in these pages.
Halperin and Harris add literally dozens of rules that aspirants should apply if they want to win the next presidential election.
Best tidbit: The authors detail the rise to power of gossip hound Matt Drudge, the Internet commentator who threw aside Old Media concerns about fact checking and sources to break scandals like the Monica Lewinsky affair on his Web site.
Pros: The breathless insider details go far deeper than what readers can pick up from mainstream news sources.
Cons: If you're not interested in politics, this book may seem duller than reading a dictionary.
Final word: This is a window into the back room shenanigans politicians and their hired hands use to win elections, dirty tricks and all. Grade: A
Presidential politics in America today is only superficially about ideas or policies. At its most raw and elemental, it is about men and their drives: an animal slugfest fueled by desire and ambition. In recent years, fed by polarization, the rise of more overtly partisan media outlets and the explosion of blogs, politics at all levels has assumed a darkly carnivalesque air, with character assassination — “personal destruction” — gaining sway as a tactic.
Mark Halperin has watched this dynamic evolve since his days as a young off-air television producer covering the 1992 campaign.
Political director of ABC News since 1997, Halperin, 41, writes a daily summary of the political press, The Note, that serves as a bible of inside dope for politicians, operatives and reporters. Now, Halperin, along with his co-author, Washington Post national political editor John F. Harris, has fetched up with a book, “The Way To Win: Taking the White House in 2008.” Released this week, the work offers a series of aphoristic “trade secrets” distilled from recent winning and losing presidential campaigns, and is couched as a manual for avoiding the pitfalls of the bilious media landscape the authors call “the freak show.” ”Be ruthless without being personal,” is one trade secret the authors divine from Bill Clinton’s cheerful way of pillorying his opponents. “Do the math,” is another they derive from the careful campaign metrics employed by Republican maestro Karl Rove.
The book, Halperin said during a recent interview at the Manhattan headquarters of ABC News, “is not advice,” rather it’s “a description of the way to win, based on the records of the Clinton and Bush political operations, which seem to know the way to win in this current freak-show environment.” Some of the lessons may strike the reader as a tad obvious. A chapter on Senator John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, titled “The Way To Lose,” chronicles how Kerry lost control of his public image through the assaults of the Swift Boat Veterans, among others. “Presidential campaigns are about storytelling,” the authors intone. “A winning presidential campaign presents the candidate’s life story to voters. A losing campaign allows someone else to frame the story.” But the book provides so many rich details to support its arguments — and paints such witheringly evenhanded portraits of political actors, including Presidents Bush and Clinton, Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain — that it’s likely to emerge among the top political-journalism titles of the century’s first decade.
Like the book, The Note, launched in 2002, abounds with juicy, insider details: This information, acutely and cutely presented, constitutes the source of the summary’s fascination for the chattering classes.
“The Note captures the rhythms and tones of institutional D.C. — and, in fact, often determines the rhythms and tones of institutional D.C.,” Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane said
But the same quality also drives its critics nuts.
“The Note confirms the old adage that life really is like high school,” complained Salon writer Eric Boehlert in the Washington Monthly, “with The Note filling the role of cheerleader-meets-yearbook editor, keeping tabs on where the cool kids are eating lunch, what they’re wearing and who’s having the big party this weekend.” Halperin certainly embodies a studied cool. Tall and dark, with a quietly penetrating manner, he always appears to be “on.” Elizabeth Wilner, the political director of NBC News who worked as Halperin’s deputy for five years, said in an e-mail that she’s “never seen a more aggressive or thorough political reporter. He works in network television but has always behaved as if he works for a wire, wanting to know and report every detail immediately.” What’s more, Wilner said, “he doesn’t act much different in more social settings, at least in Washington, when he likes to fire off provocative multiple-choice questions to the group. Kind of a grown-up, Washington version of that college game ‘I Never.’” Halperin grew up in Bethesda, Md., as a kind of Washington insider: His father, Morton, worked as a top foreign-policy aide in both the Johnson and Nixon administration. A badge of this status: The paranoid Nixon for a time tapped the family phone, according to a profile of Halperin in The New Yorker.
Halperin became a bar mitzvah at Bethesda’s Conservative Congregation Beth El. He attended nearby Walt Whitman High School and then Harvard. Halperin lives with Karen Avrich, a researcher who he says was instrumental to “The Way To Win.” She is the daughter of a late historian of anarchism, Paul Avrich, who taught for years at Queens College.
Halperin’s Jewish background sometimes surfaces in the preoccupations of The Note, which has wondered, for example, about the effect of having two hard-driving Jewish fundraisers — Senator Charles Schumer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel — as the chiefs of the Democratic senatorial and congressional campaign committees.
In his interview with the Forward, Halperin said that Jews are “pretty assimilated within elite political-media culture” as campaign strategists, fundraisers and journalists and make up a “disproportionate” percentage of the “Gang of 500” — the political elite at whom he aims The Note. Asked whether a Jew could accede to the big job, Halperin allowed that “in the abstract, there could be a Jewish president,” but he said that the figure would have to be “adept at explaining his or her faith” in ways that would put at ease those who are hostile to it or frightened by it.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, Halperin said, “is not great at explaining everything about himself or his positions, but he actually did a pretty good job at explaining his Judaism in a national context when he was a vice presidential nominee.” Halperin also proffered a warning to national Democrats about the Jewish vote, saying that the Bush campaign’s outreach to Orthodox Jews and to hawkish Jews who are concerned with the security of Israel has put the Jewish vote “up for grabs a little bit.” Polls found that Bush drew 25% of the Jewish vote in 2004, up from about 19% in 2000. He is also believed to have made inroads with pro-Israel political donors.
”Will the next Republican political operation not guided by George Bush be as adept at making inroads into the Jewish community, especially in targeted states such as Ohio, Michigan and Florida?” he asked. “We don’t know the answer to that, but it is certainly true that George Bush’s greater tilt toward Israel” has caused some American Jews, as donors and as voters, to be at least open to the Republican Party and to move to the Republican Party. That is an important long-term trend because of the financial support American Jews give to political candidates and in those swing states.” A much bigger problem for Democrats, Halperin said, is the emergence of strong rightwing outlets adept at manipulating the freak show, such as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Fox News Channel.
“We’ve gone from a system with major national news organizations strong enough to umpire, but who did it in a way that Republicans saw as liberally biased and in important ways was liberally biased,” he said. “That system has been replaced by one that favors conservatives through the new media, which masquerades as a referee but is simply part of the partisan shouting on one side or the other. The old system favored liberals but was a better referee. The new system favors conservatives but is no referee at all. Best would be if we could strengthen national news organizations and eliminate liberal bias.” How can Americans put an end to the freak show? ”It’s going to take citizens, whether they have strong ideological views or not, to appreciate the necessity, in a free democracy, of a powerful, responsible, unbiased press,” Halperin continued. “If the country doesn’t care if we have that, if the view of the people of America is, ‘We want irresponsible, partisan, niche media,’ that’s what we’ll have. It’s going to take consumers of news, voting through their subscriptions and their eyeballs, to have an unbiased press. Most of the trend lines are bad.”
Inevitably, a lot of today's political handicapping aims at this year's election, closely contested and only a month away. The fate of nations seems to turn (for the moment) on Foley scandals and possible majority shifts in the House and Senate. But all such calculation is mere prelude to 2008. More than a few analysts have already begun parsing the presidential race, and in the next two years we are bound to hear from hundreds more, pronouncing from every conceivable point of view.
Why not turn, first, to a well-sourced, dispassionate look at the grim realities of running for president, perhaps even one that verges on cynicism? That's what Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, and John Harris, the political editor for the Washington Post, have produced in "The Way to Win." They have written a book for people like them, people "obsessed with electoral strategy and maneuver, not to mention with the gaudy carnival of presidential elections." But the general reader can learn a lot too.
The authors begin by noting that two competitive families, the Bushes and the Clintons, have come to dominate American politics in the past two decades and that each represents a distinct brand of politics. The Clintons, recognizing that the country has more conservatives than liberals, pursue a base-broadening strategy that tries to preserve liberal principles but employs conservative rhetoric. The Bushes, personified by their strategist, Karl Rove, favor a base-activation strategy that highlights the differences between the parties and attempts to keep the national news media and Washington elites nipping at the GOP's heels instead of lunging at its throat. After five years of stunning success, the media part of the Bush strategy looks to be a lost cause.
Whoever runs in 2008, according to Messrs. Halperin and Harris, will have to recognize that the Old Media of TV networks and prestige publications now suffer from "fading power and diminishing options." The New Media of cable news and the Internet are creating a "Freak Show," they say, stripping away the restraints and minor courtesies that used to govern campaigns and public debate. In a chapter called "How Matt Drudge Rules Our World," the authors declare that Mr. Drudge's simple Internet operation has made him "the Walter Cronkite of his era" because what he posts "instantly commands the attention and energies" of Old Media outlets. The authors disdain Mr. Drudge -- "salacious, reckless, superficial and unfair" -- but they concede that no 2008 candidate will succeed unless he understands the Drudge Report's "singular power" and the related power of sites such as (from the left) the Daily Kos.
Messrs. Halperin and Harris also concede that, whatever the excesses of the New Media, the Old Media are not exactly a pristine and objective force. By deciding which stories to cover and which to ignore, they play favorites, too. The authors believe that the emergence in 2004 of outside political groups funded by left-leaning billionaires such as George Soros was an undercovered story; it would have received saturation levels of scrutiny if the financiers hailed from the right. Similarly, the media dwell endlessly on GOP candidates who make direct appeals to religious groups, but in 2004 reporters yawned as John Kerry and John Edwards "routinely went into houses of worship and served notice that righteous voters would be for the Democrats."
And what about 2008? Hillary Clinton has studied the practices and principles of both the Bush team and those of her husband, gleaning what the authors call Trade Secrets. These include such Machiavellian precepts as "do opposition research—on yourself" and "compile a mental enemies list of people who have crossed you. Never write it down. Make sure people are afraid to be added to the list." The Trade Secret for answering media questions is to give "an immaculate version of the exact same rehearsed response, every time."
By applying such Trade Secrets, the authors say, Ms. Clinton has been able to alter her image with some voters. She is no longer an "arrogant, power-hungry, corrupt, harsh, hypocritical liberal"; she is a "competent, thoughtful, hardworking, determined, principled role model." She recognizes that Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections in large part because they "lost control of their public image" and let the opposition set the terms of debate.
One of the most interesting points in "The Way to Win" is the calculated role that emotion can play amid so much policy wonkery and position-taking. The authors note that the Bush team has often managed to "get under the skin of [Bush's] opponents," eliciting anger and guaranteeing press coverage—for instance, in 2004, by attacking military veteran John Kerry on national-security grounds. The outrage of Democrats only "produced an extended debate on terrorism and defense matters," a debate in which "the Democrats appeared emotional and agitated and the Republicans appeared calm and strong."
As for the GOP's presidential hopefuls, Messrs. Halperin and Harris observe that John McCain is running on a blend of Clinton and Bush strategies, flavored with his maverick style and aided by an Old Media that give him "lavishly favorable treatment." He may be the one candidate who can chart his own path to the White House by transcending the Freak Show. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and the other GOP luminaries will inevitably face tough Freak Show moments: George Allen has already found this out.
"The Way to Win" is mostly concerned with broad strategy and candidate analysis. But it adds a few newsy tidbits from the authors' sources. We get to read strategy emails from Karl Rove's computer that offer insights into how the GOP micro-targets voters. Meanwhile, memos from Al Gore aides make clear that he was warned about almost everything that would eventually derail his 2000 campaign, including his habit of lecturing voters in a know-it-all way. If Mr. Gore plans to be part of 2008's "gaudy carnival," as certain activist Democrats hope, he should read this book.
Political books are drowning in a Babel’s brew of shouting, shrillness and in some cases utter stupidity and disregard for basic facts.
But not all of them. If you read one political book this autumn, make it Mark Halperin and John F. Harris’ The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008. Halperin, ABC News director and creator of "The Note" (abcnews.go.com/Politics/), teams with Washington Post political editor Harris to write the most fascinating and insightful political book of the year.
The authors make it clear they are not interested in praising or damning the policies and beliefs of the Bushes and Clintons, the two families who have between them held the White House since January 1989. Halperin and Harris focus instead on the political machinations that have made George H.W., George W., Bill and possibly Hillary in 2008 such strong forces.
Some hardcore partisans on both sides of the political spectrum will dislike this book. But it seems almost impossible to refute the authors’ chief thesis: that the Bushes and Clintons have kept winning through careful damage control of their own public images even as they chip away at the images of their opponents. In short, this is the book Bob Dole, Al Gore and John Kerry must wish had been around when they were running — and losing.
And if you don’t think Hillary can win in ’08 — or if you think she’s a lock — you must read this book. Both Hillary and John McCain, whom the authors see as the strongest contenders on each side of the aisle, have assets and liabilities that could affect all our futures. How they might deploy them, or fail to do so, makes for mesmerizing reading.
Consider this passage regarding Clinton: "Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s greatest weakness as a presidential candidate is the lack of a clear rationale and message. Such a rationale is essential to winning, but Clinton does not seem to have formulated one, let alone conveyed one to the public. The ultimate question of what a Hillary Clinton campaign and administration would be about is unanswered."
"Halperin (ABC News) and Harris (the Washington Post and The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House) illustrate "trade secrets" to political victory with this penetrating examination of the personal lives and political histories of the biggest names in recent presidential politics. From the losers (John Kerry and Al Gore, defeated because they "lost control of their public images") to the potential winners (Hillary Clinton, who, they assert, will have a significant fund-raising and fame advantage if she runs in 2008), the authors extract canny lessons in political strategy. But they offer particularly valuable insights into inadequately understood players like Matt Drudge, whom the authors credit as one of the greatest forces behind the Clinton impeachment and the Gore and Kerry losses, and Karl Rove, a man who, regardless of one's politics, "deserves unique notice for one reason: he is an exceptionally good political strategist." The authors' analyses are savvy and unsentimental, without collapsing into cynicism. Though very topical, the book's comprehensiveness should make it a lasting piece of scholarship—an in-depth, indefatigable examination of American media and politics at the turn of the millennium."
THE WAY TO WIN Taking the White House in 2008
By Mark Halperin and
John F. Harris