As readers may have discerned, if only from the Harry Reid “Negro Dialect” furor, the big whoop in Washington during the last few days has revolved around Game Change, a 2008 campaign chronicle by DC press veterans John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
The people flacking this book have done a brilliant job of trickling out “juicy” insider anecdotes in which major campaign figures do and say deeply embarrassing things. The most notorious example is the Reid quote, but there are others: in particular, an excerpt published by New York Magazine that provides a hellish account of the Reille Hunter saga as seen from within John Edwards’ presidential campaign. The excerpt is getting particularly large play because of its unusually negative portrayal of “St. Elizabeth” Edwards, displayed as an erratic and abusive control-freak whose used her knowledge of her husband’s infidelity as a weapon for leverage in the campaign.
You read this stuff and cringe, but in the end, wonder how much it really adds to our knowledge of the Edwards campaign, much less the 2008 elections generally. If you look very closely at the New York excerpt, buried in all the “juicy” bits, you can discern the real story of the Edwards campaign:
To Edwards, the pathway to the nomination seemed clear: beat Clinton in Iowa, where his surprising second-place finish in 2004 had catapulted him to national prominence; survive New Hampshire; then kill her off in the South Carolina primary, which he’d carried the last time around. Over and over, he proclaimed to his aides, “I am going to be the next president of the United States.
To put some flesh on these bare bones, the Edwards campaign was a strategic gamble which heavily influenced everything the candidate did after 2004: his faithful adoption of the “crashing the gates” netroots narrative of the corrupt DC Democratic establishment, epitomized by the Clintons; his hiring of netroots veterans like Joe Trippi; his highly consistent anti-corporate rhetoric; his repeated assertions that only a southerner could win a tough general election; and his slavish devotion to nurturing his organization in Iowa.
It never worked out, of course, in part because he fatally underestimated Barack Obama, and by Caucus Night, the fiery populist was reduced to hoping for a low, senior-dominated turnout.
Now maybe it’s just me, but I find this story, which seems to get little attention in Game Change, to be as interesting and even dramatic as all the internal maneuverings around Reille Hunter. Other accounts have suggested that Elizabeth Edwards played an outsized role in shaping the strategy for her husband’s campaign, and perhaps their weird relationship made that possible. But otherwise, aside from speculation about the explosive impact the Hunter scandal might have had if Edwards had actually won the nomination, it’s not that clear why it much matters to anyone other than the unfortunate immediate participants. And that may be true of other “revelations” in this book.