• Marc Johnson

Good Food for Political Junkies


Political junkies, regardless of partisan leanings, may find the new Dan Balz/Haynes Johnson tome on the 2008 election must reading.

The book features sharp insights into GOP and Democratic grand strategy -including why Obama focused unprecedented attention on Idaho. The grand mistakes are aired, as well, including a dissection of the devastating infighting in the Clinton and McCain campaigns and McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Balz, the Washington Post’s top political writer, and Johnson, a Pulitzer winner and widely published author, have written the first really detailed account of the historic election.

The Battle for America 2008 doesn’t offer a lot of groundbreaking new material, but even a lot of the story we know is engagingly packaged. As a political tale it is no less interesting now than it was during the course of the long, long 2008 campaign. One particularly interesting section centers on the Obama campaign’s focus on caucus states – including Idaho.

Idaho – a Key to Obama’s Caucus Strategy

“Idaho became the textbook study of the Obama [caucus] strategy,” Balz and Johnson write. “Only a few thousand people had participated in the caucuses in 2004. Obama’s advisers realized that with a relatively modest investment, they could probably win. What made Idaho even more attractive was the volunteer cadre already at work.”

Obama’s national field director is quoted as saying: “By the time our first staffer landed in Idaho at the beginning of October, the Idahoans for Obama had organized themselves….they had an office ready to rent, had the phone lines already on order….and they had figured out the caucus rules and typed them up and put them together in sort of an easy-to-use here’s how to caucus in Idaho.”

Balz and Johnson go on to compare what happened to the Democratic campaigns in New Jersey and Idaho as a result of the attention by the Obama strategists on the opportunity they saw in ruby red Idaho.

“New Jersey had 107 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, Idaho had just eighteen. [Hillary] Clinton won New Jersey by ten points (54 percent to 44 percent) and won eleven more delegates than Obama. But Obama’s investment in tiny Idaho neutralized the impact of New Jersey, as he won there by an astounding sixty-two points, more than 79 percent to Clinton’s 17. With that margin, he gained twelve more delegates than Clinton.”

(The fellow who gets a lot of credit for creating the Idaho organization, TJ Thomson, is now a candidate for Boise City Council.)

Not surprisingly, some of the juiciest material in The Battle for America involves the role Bill Clinton played in Hillary’s campaign.

Balz and Johnson do offer up some curious passages, usually when they attempt to draw larger political lessons from the 2008 campaign. They discuss, for example, changing demographics, particularly in the west and southwest, that helped drive Obama’s wins in places like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Then there is this passage:

“Through the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans had counted on California, the Rocky Mountain West, the South and the Great Plains to produce a virtual lock in presidential races. This was the springboard for the election of every Republican president from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan.”

Say what? The “virtual lock” observation is true enough, but the only Republican president between Nixon and Reagan was Gerald Ford who lost in 1976 when Jimmy Carter won the White House on his way to losing every state west of the Mississippi with the exception of Texas. Perhaps a better point would be to acknowledge that two Republican presidents – Nixon and Reagan – were each twice elected (and you can throw in George W. Bush, as well) by employing a Western/Midwestern/Southern strategy.

Still, a few nitpicks aside, if you love politics and find that you still cannot get enough of the last great campaign, The Battle for America 2008 is an engaging read.

The new book will fit nicely on the political bookshelf with Teddy White’s Making of the President series, Jack Germond’s and Jules Witcover’s fine books about the 1980, ’84 and ’88 elections and Richard Ben Cramer’s classic What it Takes about the 1988 candidates for president.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson