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New book: Political restraints gone

Best Of 2012:  Barack ObamAnd Mitt Romney Participate In Second Presidential Debate

Best Of 2012: Barack Obama And Mitt Romney Participate In Second Presidential Debate

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Updated: August 6, 2013 8:28PM



Here is Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, explaining to Dan Balz how he intends to run the 2012 campaign:

“My favorite political philosopher is Mike Tyson,” Messina says. “Mike Tyson once said everyone has a plan until you punch them in the face. Then they don’t have a plan anymore. [The Republicans] may have a plan to beat my guy. My job is to punch them in the face.”

Here is Tagg Romney, Mitt Romney’s son, telling Balz that his father was not quite fired up and ready to go less than three weeks before he announced his candidacy. “He was hoping for an exit,” Tagg says. “I think he wanted to have an excuse not to run.” During the Christmas holiday of 2010, the Romney family had gathered in Hawaii and voted on whether Romney should run. Ten of the 12 family members voted no. Mitt Romney was among the no votes.

Here is Ron Kaufman, one of Romney’s top advisers, on Election Night after Romney’s defeat, sitting in a nearly empty staff room after Romney has made a gracious concession call to Obama and a concession speech. Romney walks into the staff room. “This is scary,” Romney says. “This is a bad thing for the country.”

I could go on and on. Balz’s new book, “Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America,” is so full of anecdotes and revelations that it is hard to stop. But I will. Because even though I think this is one of the best political books I have ever read, it is not a collection of anecdotes.

Instead it is a searing, unsparing indictment of America’s presidential election system and the way candidates run for office. And though Balz is the chief correspondent of The Washington Post, the press does not escape unscathed, either.

Balz sat down for two hours at my kitchen table recently. We have been friends for more than 40 years. Today and in my next column, I will present part of our conversation.

Q: You are pretty tough on Obama in your book.

DB: Neither side rose to the moment of trying to overcome where we were with our paralysis and negativity. Obama decided the best way to overcome that was to win convincingly. Everything we’ve seen since is that that didn’t work.

Q: You write: “No one expected Campaign 2012 to be positive or uplifting ... (but) all restraints were gone, the guardrails had disappeared, and there was no incentive for anyone to hold back.” One reason the campaign became so negative is because neither side believed the independent vote was large enough to matter. So both sides did everything they could to throw red meat to their base voters.

DB: The base wants to feel enthusiastic about the nominee, and in this environment that means the candidate often has to be harsh on his opponent. One of the things the Obama people took away from [his poor performance in] the first debate was that much of the importance of a debate is to make your voters feel good and not to persuade undecided voters.

In the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden was aggressive as he could be to say to his base: “We’re fighting for you.”

Q: You have this wonderful anecdote about Biden landing in Kentucky for his debate, and he immediately takes a call from Obama. After it, Biden is smiling and tells an adviser: “I know we’re in trouble.” The adviser asks why, and Biden says: “I know we’re in trouble because the president just told me to be myself, and that’s the first time in four years he’s ever told me that.”

DB: [laughs] Obama could not have done [the all-out attacking] he did in the second and third debates without the first debate. He had to overcompensate.

Q: In trying to explain to you his infamous 47 percent remark, Romney reaches for his iPad and starts quoting from it, but he still gets the 47 percent quote wrong. What’s up with that?

DB: He can’t accept the words he uttered were the words he uttered. In his own mind, that’s not what he thinks he said. We talk about candidates having the ability to connect with voters, but with Romney I turn it around: The voters could not connect with Romney. As one person in one focus group said, “He’s been too rich for too long.”

Part Two next week: The press, Chris Christie and 2016.



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