A superior piece of political reportage and interpretation by Washington Post writer Balz (co-author: Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival, 1996) and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and historian Johnson (Journalism/Univ. of Maryland; The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, 2005, etc.).
By this account, the 2008 presidential campaign began in 2005 “Though George W. Bush no longer was on the ballot,” write the authors, “his shadow hovered over all that followed.” One of the things that undid Republican candidate John McCain, they note, was his firm support for the deeply unpopular Iraq War, support that he acknowledged as a political liability. It didn’t help that McCain had gotten ever closer to Bush, and that his campaign had adopted Rovian tactics that were nasty and often unfair, both to primary opponents such as Mitt Romney and to his Democratic foe, Barack Obama. Meanwhile, the likely Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, made several critical errors during the campaign, many of which would seem to fall under the rubric of underestimating both Obama and the mood of the electorate, which wanted real change. There are a few surprises here, among them the authors’ careful exposition of how McCain came to choose Sarah Palin. One motivation was youth, another folksiness in the wake of McCain’s inability to remember how many residences he had—which ruled out Romney as running mate, since, in a time of economic turmoil, “Republicans could not present voters with nominees who between them owned nearly a dozen homes.” Though Balz and Johnson do not write with the intimacies of Timothy Crouse or the lunacies of Hunter Thompson, their account is engrossing all the same. Although we all know how things turned out, the authors know how to work a cliffhanger, and, as they effectively demonstrate, things could have turned out differently at any number of turns.
Essential for watchers of politics and a model for similar electoral analyses in the future.