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What the 2012 election can teach us about 2014 and beyond

December 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the first year of President Obama's second term draws to a close, Gwen Ifill talks to Mark Halperin of Time magazine and John Heilemann of New York magazine about their new book, "Double Down: Game Change 2012," for insight into the people who shaped the 2012 election and what that election says about races to come.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: a look back at last year’s presidential campaign and what the result means for our politics heading into 2014 and beyond.

Gwen Ifill taped that conversation before leaving for the new year holiday.

GWEN IFILL: One year after President Obama won his second term in office, we are still learning about what the 2012 election taught us about what Americans expect of their leaders and the path those leaders take to the presidency.

Much that is captured in moments like those chronicled in “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” written by Mark Halperin, an editor at large and senior political analyst for “TIME” magazine, and John Heilemann, national affairs editor for “New York” magazine.

Thank you both for making time for us.

MARK HALPERIN, TIME magazine: Happy to be here. Happy holidays.

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GWEN IFILL: Happy holidays to you.

So what did we learn about ourselves as Americans in an election like 2012, Mark?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, this was a big choice election for the country, as it always is. And President Obama, as we write in the book, felt this was in some way the bigger election for him. He felt to some extent he won the first time based on people wanting hope and change, a change in direction from the Bush years.

And so he wanted to as, the title of our book says, have the country double down on his vision of the economy, his vision of what Washington should and shouldn’t do, his health care plan. And in the case of the country at large, I think, it was a choice that wasn’t necessarily one that people were wildly enthusiastic about, but it did divide us even further.

We have had a number of elections now that have caused more division than unity.

GWEN IFILL: John, in the year since, we have seen everything that has happened in this second-term presidency, the first year of it. Have those choices been realized? Do people look at that and say, this was what they voted for?

JOHN HEILEMANN, New York magazine: Well, I think that people voted for, to a large extent — if you think about the end of the election, Mitt Romney won in the exit polls on almost every metric, except for the metric that turned out to matter most, which was the ones that was, who cares about people like me?

So they — people voted for President Obama to a large extent because they liked him and they trusted him to identify with their concerns, with the real lives of real people for most American voters. I think even a year later, with all the problems President Obama has had, people still believe that he has their best interests at heart.

What they have lost is a sense that he is competent to implement the policies that he’s put forward. And I think that is the biggest problem with what has happened with him with the health care plan, is that people have lost faith in his ability to actually get the job done.

And to some extent, they have lost faith in his honesty and his candor with them. And those are huge problems for him going forward over the next — course of the next three years. They still feel he sympathizes with him, but they’re not as willing to put their faith in him as they had been in the previous four years.

GWEN IFILL: In putting this book together, you followed the same kind of template that you did four years ago with “Game Change,” in which you did exhaustive reviews with a lot of people, 500 interviews for this book.

And yet people didn’t really disagree that much about the basic facts of how this campaign came to be, and why it came to be, even though we all disagree about everything else right now.

MARK HALPERIN: Well, in terms of the narrative of the book, 500 interviews is more than we are able to do in our day jobs and most political journalists are able to do these days for any project.

And I think you had in, for instance, Governor Romney, a central character obviously in the campaign and in our book, the very things that caused him to be limited as a candidate were things people in both parties saw in advance. There was a lot of skepticism about him. That is why you saw efforts to get Chris Christie and others into the race.

It’s why you saw — even at his lowest point in his presidency, Barack Obama anticipated Mitt Romney would be the nominee and thought, I can take this guy.

That — that sort of consensus about where Governor Romney was going to come up short is one of just a lot of examples where, you’re right, even though, politically, there is a lot of division, the analysis of the contours of the race and some of the personalities was very consistent in our interviews.

GWEN IFILL: Was it a personality-driven race? And is that the way we do our democracy now?

JOHN HEILEMANN: I think it’s not now. I think is always been, it was ever thus, that personality matters a lot.

And personality makes it sound trivial, but character matters, right? And we have seen this over every election we have ever covered, all of us. You know, it’s the things like whether people believe that they — believe that the candidate they are voting on are honest, have empathy, whether they have leadership, whether they have strength, all those personal characteristics, because at the end of the day the presidency, unlike almost every other office, is an office where this person lives with you in your living room 24/7, 365 days a year.

You have to kind of like that person and be comfortable with having them in your home and having them be a piece of your emotional or psychological furniture in order to vote for them for president. And in the end, that is largely driven by personal characteristics and attributes.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about some of those people because we — sometimes, I think times we burn out our politicians or at least our potential leaders.

Mitt Romney was a potential leader, came fairly close. People like Tim Pawlenty was very much cheered at one point in the campaign, people like Jon Huntsman for a moment. There were moments for all of them. And now they’re all on the sidelines, forever probably. Is that a healthy way to run a democracy?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, we have seen people run and lose.

It has sort of become a conventional wisdom that running once gives you the experience, you’re better the next time. The last three guys who have won, all who have won three (sic) terms, they won the first time they ran. And Governor Romney in this race thought, you know, I have got a big advantage over everyone else running because I’m probably going to be the only one or one of the only ones who has run before.

I think that there are second acts in American politics. You look at the people in our book, some who didn’t run, but who came right up to the edge, people like Chris Christie, people like Mike Huckabee, who has run once before, but passed this time. And I think you see in both “Game Change” and “Double Down” one of the — one of the real — one of the realities of this is people often don’t run for personal reasons, not pure political calculation, can I raise the money or, you know, who else is running, but a lot of the people in our book don’t run — who don’t run for personal reasons.

They don’t feel in their gut it is the right time. Their wife doesn’t want them to run. Their kids don’t want them to run. Some considerations are not — they want to make money — it really is personal, as opposed to political.

JOHN HEILEMANN: But the other thing is, also, there is a lot of continuity in some sense. There are these people in the 2012 race who were supernovas and probably will never be seen again on the national stage.

At the same time, two of the great constants in both of our books, in “Game Change and “Double Down,” have been Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were huge characters in both of those books and have been parts of our national life now for more than two decades and very well may be a part of our national life for another decade after that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s the flip side. Then there are those who never seem to go away. Sarah Palin isn’t in a political universe anymore, but she hasn’t gone away. Joe Biden ran for president and now has been vice president for two terms. He is not going away, and of course Hillary Clinton.

MARK HALPERIN: Well, look, there are great brands in American politics.

And one of the constants and one of the big themes in this book is the relationship between the Obamas and the Clintons. They were warring parties, warring families, like the Hatfields and McCoys, in our last book, in the 2008.

In this cycle, pretty remarkable. You think about how different Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are, how estranged they were coming out of the 2008 election, and yet in this race a huge coming together, kind of one now joint political family.

The courtship, President Obama doing something, we write about, almost never does, at least that we know of, admits he needs the help of someone else. Bill Clinton seeing the opportunity to help his party, but also to kind of rehabilitate himself, and now we have their joint operation. Hillary Clinton has got a ton of advantages if she wants to run in 2016. The fact that her political family is now married up with the Obama family is a huge benefit for her.

GWEN IFILL: But I have to say one of the interesting things that seems like a theme in this increasingly every four years is this money theme, the degree that individuals with a lot of money can determine outcomes or think they can determine outcomes.

The amount of money that was spent on Mitt Romney’s campaign by individuals, people like by Rick Santorum, by individuals, Newt Gingrich stayed alive longer than he would have because of individual support. Doesn’t that change the nature of the kind of elections we have?

JOHN HEILEMANN: It sure does.

There is no question about the fact that in 2012, especially in the Republican nomination fight, that those wealthy individuals, people like Sheldon Adelson helping Newt Gingrich stay alive much longer in the race than he would have been able to otherwise, Foster Friess helping Rick Santorum stay much alive longer through the super PACs that they largely self-funded, elongated the Republican nomination fight and made Mitt Romney expend more resources, and fight longer and then take on much more water over that time.

But then you look at the general election, where hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the Republican super PAC side, to almost no effect whatsoever. And there are tons of Republican donors out there, many of these rich millionaires and billionaires, incredibly frustrated at the end of the day, saying, we poured money into Karl Rove’s group, we poured money into the Koch brothers group, and what effect did that have on the outcome in the end? Very little.

And so there is no doubt there is going to be a lot of money that gets spent in 2016, but it is going to be interesting to see how the people who spend that money, whether they have a different kind of scrutiny that they put on those groups, whether they ask tougher questions, whether the game is played with a greater degree of sophistication and less just throwing money out the window than there was in 2012.

GWEN IFILL: But you say how the game is played. I wonder if Americans aren’t just sick of this and to the degree that elections never end. Do they ever end? Or are they a constant, not just the elective process, but the whole idea of choosing and judging our leaders?

MARK HALPERIN: I think we spend a lot of time in this country — if a Fortune 500 company has an open CEO job, they will spend a lot of time looking for somebody.

If an anchor opens up — anchor slot opens up, people spend a lot of time looking for a replacement anchor. I think it is a big job. And I don’t think there is a problem with a constant running. And I think the candidates benefit from it. Part of what worries me about some of the people who ran in 2012 and some of the people who are looking at 2016 is they haven’t spent years out there meeting people around the country, getting an understanding of different regions of the country.

Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan spent, you know, decades in the political vineyards, understanding different states.

GWEN IFILL: And you are saying it is a necessary thing?

MARK HALPERIN: I just think it is good for the candidates. I think it’s good for the country.

I would rather we get to know these people over time, not in some rushed way. We follow the NFL 12 months a year pretty much. We follow country music 20 — 12 months a year. I think we can follow politics. I think we can handle this.

GWEN IFILL: Speak for yourself, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: John, final word.

JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, I think there are — I think all of that is true. I don’t disagree with Mark about it at all.

I think it is a little bit worrying when you see someone like Barack Obama come out of the 2012 race, and people talk about him having, you know, a nine-month window in his whole second term to get anything done, before midterm politics first and then presidential politics second will blow everything else out of the water and make it impossible to get business done in Washington, D.C.

The country faces huge problems. And those problems have been really hard to solve for a long time. To give up a reelected president who won with a big mandate, in the sense of a big Electoral College margin, five million votes in the popular electorate, to give that person nine months to get a budget deal done, to implement health care reform, to get immigration reform done, that seems like a very narrow window to have a time for governance. And that is one part of it that does seem a little bit unfortunate to me.

GWEN IFILL: John Heilemann of “New York” magazine, Mark Halperin of “TIME” magazine, the authors of “Double Down,” thank you both very much.

MARK HALPERIN: Thank you, Gwen.

JOHN HEILEMANN: Thank you, Gwen.