Dan Balz On Collision 2012
Email to a FriendX
HH: Special couple of hours of the program coming up. If you’re still wondering, as I’m still wondering, what really happened in November of 2012, well, the book has arrived to detail for you what really happened. It’s Collision 2012: Obama Vs. Romney And The Future Of Elections In America. It’s author, Dan Balz, no stranger to this audience, he’s chief correspondent at the Washington Post, former national editor and political editor there, and he’s the co-author of two previous bestsellers. Dan Balz, welcome back. Congratulations, Collision 2012 is a terrific book.
DB: Thank you. I really appreciate that, and it’s good to be with you.
HH: Well, it’s good to talk to you. Now luckily, we have the luxury of time over a couple of radio hours to dig into this. So I want to begin by asking you when you sat down to do this, I’ve had on, thus far, Jonathan Alter talking about Obama and his enemies, The Center Holds, and that’s a book from the left from a man I greatly respect. Jonathan is a friend. I’ve had on Mark Liebovich, who wrote sort of an anthropological look at the last couple of years in This Town. But your book is very different. It’s sort of old school. It’s very reportorial. And is that what you set out to do?
DB: It is. I mean, you know, I’m a reporter first, foremost and always, I think. And Haynes Johnson and I did a book about the 2008 campaign, and we called that a narrative history of the election, and that’s what I set out to do in this one. I mean, it is a reported book as deeply as one can report in real time in a campaign when people are holding back information. And then when you have to write it quickly after the election, one could always take many more months to really go deeper. But it is a reported book about what happened in 2012.
HH: I find it very interesting that Governor Romney picked you to come down and see him to really give the interview to. I know he’s done a couple of conversations here and there, but it’s clear to me that he wanted to tell the story to you from his perspective. How hard was it to arrange that?
DB: Well, not as hard as I thought it might be. I mean, and the reason I say that is that presidential candidates who lose don’t usually like to invite reporters to come in and ask them in 20 different ways why they lost and why they shouldn’t have won. And so it’s sometimes unusual that candidates want to do that. And I respected Governor Romney and his team for being willing to do that. And so once the campaign was well over, I raised this with some of his senior advisors, and I think their first inclination was he probably won’t do it, but there’s no reason not to ask, and it turned out he was very willing to do it. And Hugh, the interesting thing was when I met him, he was at his condo in Belmont, just outside of Boston. It was right at the end of January. The second inauguration of Barack Obama was history at that point. He met me at the door. There was nobody else there. There wasn’t an aide in sight. And we sat down, and I put my tape recorders down on the hassock between us, and we talked. And he was not defensive at all about what had happened. He tried to give his view of things and his explanation. But I thought it was a very interesting conversation, and it was, you know, I always think it’s much more important to get the voices of the candidates into works like this. So often, we concentrate on staff intrigue and dysfunctional insider campaign stuff. And to me, the real characters in any election are A) the voters, and B) the candidates. And the degree to which you can get the view from the candidates, and Romney isn’t the only one in this book, but he’s obviously a principal one, to sit down and talk and answer question, I think you get a better view and a fuller view of how things happened.
HH: Now I’ve told a lot of people, Dan Balz, that over the years, I’ve gotten to know pretty well a number of very high-profile people. And of them all, the three smartest were Richard Nixon, John Roberts and Mitt Romney. And of them all, I mean, all of them that I’ve known, I’m not diminishing anyone, I think he’s the best man when it comes to virtue, good. What was your impression at the end of this, this conversation with him, about his tranquility about what’s happened and what he did?
DB: Hugh, I think in some ways, he still didn’t quite get what happened. I think in other ways, he did. I mean, he recognized that technically, the Obama campaign was better than his campaign. I think that he is, he was still coming to terms with, or trying to understand how is it that he seemed to have won the economic argument, according to the exit polls as he read them, but nonetheless lost the election, or that he had won the votes of independents, but still had lost the election. And I think he was still grappling with that, trying to figure out why that had happened. He clearly thought he was going to win. You know, he wasn’t 100% sure that he was going to win, but he was pretty confident the day of the election that he was going to emerge as the president, and he didn’t. And I think it, you know, it takes a while, and sometimes, candidates never work it out exactly what had happened, and what they might have done differently. So you know, there were a number of points along the way where I thought he was pretty candid about himself, about the way he saw the election, both the primaries and the general election, and at other points, he was still kind of wrestling with why did this happen the way it did.
HH: I’m talking with Dan Balz, whose new book, Collision 2012 in bookstores now. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, and if you’re like me and you love this stuff, you’re going to love this book. And even if you don’t love it as much as I do, this is the one book to get the fair assessment of what happened. So Dan Balz, I’ve been involved in presidential campaigns since 1976 either as a reporter or a pundit or an activist or a member of the government. I have never been this wrong. In fact, I’ve actually never been wrong about whether it was going to be close or lopsided one way or the other. I was so wrong, and I’m not the only one. Were you surprised by the scope of the Obama win, which was yes, there was only 400,000-500,000 votes in four states, but it was nevertheless not what anyone was calling?
DB: Well, I would say this. I think I was surprised that in the end that President Obama won every contested state with the exception of North Carolina. I thought that Romney would win some of those other states. I thought he had the best chance in Florida, and he came quite close in Florida, as you know. I thought that the popular vote margin would be a little closer. But by the end, I was not surprised that he won, and as I say, I thought that 332 electoral votes was more than he was going to get. Incidentally, just as a little footnote, when the Obama team a couple of weeks before the election did their predictions, David Plouffe, then the senior advisor in the White House, predicted 332 electoral votes. I’ll say this, Hugh. In talking, as I was doing, and a lot of other reporters were, also, to both campaigns throughout the fall, I just found that the Obama campaign seemed to have a better grasp of what this electorate was likely to be on Election Day. And I think that that is the, that’s where the gap between the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign really showed up. The Obama campaign in the end knew almost precisely what this electorate was going to be like, and the Romney campaign was surprised by it.
HH: Now I want to go back, first substantive question about Collision 2012. On Page 88, it’s Thursday, December 9th, 2010, in La Jolla. Mitt Romney hasn’t committed to run. He’s convened Matt Rhoades, Beth Myers, Eric Fehrnstrom, Bob White, Stuart Stevens, Russ Schriefer, Ron Kaufman, Spencer Zwick, Zac Moffatt, the digital guy, Kelli Harrison, Tagg and Matt, his sons, and Ann. Pete Flaherty is not there, key guy, people know about that, Mike Murphy’s not there. There’s actually no one kind of like Murphy or Rove. I know Stuart Stevens and Russ are supposed to be that, but are you surprised that they didn’t bring in someone like that?
DB: Well, there was discussion about it. Governor Romney talked to Mike, and Tagg talked to Mike. I mean, the truth is, which everybody knows, is that Mike Murphy and Stuart Stevens are not exactly the best of friends. They’ve battled one another in primaries, and the idea that both of them would be under the same roof was, you know, I think everybody knew that that was not likely to happen. I think Governor Romney had hoped that there might be a way to bring Mike in, because Mike had done his gubernatorial race. He had great respect for Mike. And he talked to him, and Tagg talked to him. But in the end, there was no way to work that out. I don’t think Mike ever felt that there was a way that he was going to be coming into that campaign. Now that having been said, Governor Romney from time to time talked to Mike Murphy, but he was not in any way in the center of the campaign. And people will look back and say would they have been better of if he had? Perhaps, but that’s one of the glorious what ifs of presidential politics and of history. You know, you can rerun it with a lot of what ifs, but he was missing. He was not part of the 2008 campaign, nor was he part of this last campaign.
— – – – –
HH: That of course the voice of Clint Eastwood at the Tampa Bay Republican Convention talking to a chair. My guest this hour and next, Dan Balz, of course senior editor, chief correspondent at the Washington Post, his brand new book, Collision 2012 has many revelations in it, the most stunning of which is that after Clint Eastwood gave that set of remarks, Stuart Stevens, chief strategist of the Romney campaign, walked into a bathroom and threw up, Page 285. I put the book down. That says so much, Dan Balz. But explain to people why, are people like me, are they all reacting the same way, that that is really one of the most edifying moments of Collision 2012?
DB: Well, it just summed up in a sense all of the sort of missed opportunities that the Romney campaign went through. I mean, that…you know, the Clint Eastwood moment of the convention was probably the best-remembered moment of the convention, which is not what anybody had intended, and certainly given what Clint Eastwood did, not what anybody wanted. This was on the last night of the convention, it’s the night that Governor Romney is supposed to be the centerpiece, and everybody thought that Clint Eastwood was going to go out there and say what he had said at some fundraisers where he had appeared on Romney’s behalf. They had talked to him about it. They had had a conversation with him about it in the afternoon. Everybody thought this was going to be great. They thought it was a coup to be able to get Clint Eastwood on the stage in front of many, many million Americans. And he went totally off script, and everybody was sitting there with their, you know, with their jaws agape wondering what in the world is going on. And the Stuart Stevens reaction was the most dramatic, I’m sure, but everybody else around Romney was, in one way or another, reacting similarly. They could not believe what was happening.
HH: Well, it was a, I’ll call it a political near death experience. And as I watched it in real time as a fan of Romney, it came out okay, but at the end of it, I thought oh, my gosh, that was truly almost destructive of the entire party and the effort, and what could have happened there, because it had gone so badly awry, and then he brought it back at the end and it worked, sort of. But at that point, you note Ann Romney’s reaction to the speech. Did the inner circle, and by that I mean the children, the boys and Ann, come and say we have to reassess the leadership, Governor, Mitt, Dad?
DB: Not to my knowledge. I mean, there were some reports that in one way or another, Tagg Romney had done an intervention to sort of take over the campaign, but I mean in talking to Tagg about that, I got no indication that that was the case. I mean, I think everybody was upset by it, and you know, for a number of people in the Republican Party, as you say, I mean, they loved what Eastwood did. I mean, they thought it was great, and I did a piece the next morning basically, the lead of the piece said this is why conventions are scripted.
DB: And I got a lot of emails from people saying you don’t get it, that was great, et cetera, et cetera, we loved what he said. And I take that point. I understand that. But in terms of the opportunity lost moment, there’s no question that what he did overshadowed what was to have been the more important things of the evening – A) the wonderful video biography that had been done, which the Romney campaign did not think the networks were going to show in prime time, and therefore, kind of kept it out of prime time. I’m not convinced the networks wouldn’t have shown it if it had gone on in prime time, as long as it wasn’t a 20 minute informercial. They missed the opportunity to have the wonderful people who gave this very poignant testimony about Mitt Romney, the human being, the compassionate man who had helped their 14 year old son when he was dying of cancer, that never made it into prime time. And Clint Eastwood did. And so I mean, it just was another instance of you say, well, boy they would like to have those 8 minutes back. I mean, it’s 8 minutes in a long campaign, but every minute counted, and that was 8 minutes that they would love to have had back, or done in a different way.
HH: Well, there are a couple of minutes, boy, it’s so funny how a game of inches describes football, and a game of minutes describes presidential campaigns, but they brought in the murderer’s row of GOP writers – Pete Wehner, John McConnell, Matt Scully, and I’ve known John for a very long time, and Pete for a very long time. I don’t know Matt Scully. And I have a certain vanity about crafting speeches and ghosting and things like that. I remain amazed that the military was not mentioned in the acceptance speech, and that it’s one of those obvious things to professionals who ghost and write things that in the middle of a war, you do that. And of course, the Dems hit him about that. Did the campaign get too insular that a pair of eyes that could have easily seen something like that didn’t run over that draft?
DB: Well, I think there’s no question about that. But I think that this is a case in which I think the candidate bears a lot of responsibility, and that the reason I say that is this. I won’t say necessarily unique among all politicians, but unusual among politicians, Mitt Romney liked to write his own speeches. He was an English major in college, he has a lot of confidence in his ability to use the language. And as Stuart Stevens said, he often said that speechwriters, he’s a tough date, which is to say you’re not going to, you know, this will not necessarily be a great experience to try to write a speech for him. I mean, I was told after the election that in the first campaign, they had asked, I don’t know whether it was in the campaign or at some point earlier, they had asked Peggy Noonan to do some writing, write a piece for him, and she did, and he didn’t use it.
HH: You know, Dan, I helped with a light edit on his book. He wrote his book.
HH: He actually thinks it through and does the… I mean, he writes it. It’s not remotely ghosted or anything like that. I just did a couple of light edits on it. And I know for a fact he does that. But it’s the campaign’s job to say Governor, give us your speech, we’re going to run it past a few people so that someone says you know, a candidate might forget to mention the military, because he mentioned the military the day before at the American Legion. It’s just one of those things that I think they got locked up so tight at the end that no one was talking to him.
DB: Well, I think the other thing that happened around that convention is that they were kind of running at warp speed, and as you remember, they had to cancel the first day, which meant they had to completely blow up the schedule and rearrange it. And my sense is that they were so concentrating on the moment that they didn’t have, they didn’t step back and ask the basic kind of question that you’re talking about, that in their rush to try to get this convention redrawn in a matter of days, and as they were working on getting that speech done, right up to the minute, that probably not enough people really did see it and think about that question.
HH: Now this leads me to Page 309, fascinating look inside debate prep. And you write about this, you’re quoting the Governor here. “Let’s make the debate project the Manhattan project of our campaign, Beth Myers remembered Romney saying on to her earlier this year. Let’s commit the resources, let’s commit the time, let’s have all the smartest people. Romney wanted to be sure as he walked into the debates.” Well, then they get to it, and we’ll come back after the break, and it’s the same people that were there in 2010 with a couple of, you know, Lanhee Chen had shown up by that time, and Rob Portman of course, showed up to play President Obama. But it didn’t change much. I’ll ask Dan Balz what’s that tell him when we come back after break.
— – – – –
HH: I’m just darting around in here on some of the things I made notes about, but you really have to read the whole thing. So Dan, they go into debate prep, and the cast is the same as two years ago with a couple of changes. So did they actually make it the Manhattan Project? Did…the Governor had a great first debate, but then what happened?
DB: Well, I mean, I think the metaphor of the Manhattan Project was Mitt Romney’s way of saying let’s make sure we give as much time and attention to this as we need to do so that I’m fully prepared. The idea of let’s bring in all the smartest people, there is a limit to how many people you want getting ready for a debate. And there is also, I think it’s sometimes hard for organizations to bring in new people at that point. I mean, remember, he had done more than 20 debates during the primaries. And arguably, he won almost all of them with a few exceptions. Certainly, the South Carolina debates, he did not win, and Newt Gingrich did. But so I think that the feeling was he knew how to handle himself in a debate, but they wanted to make sure that the prep sessions went well. He did a ton of mock debates before that first debate, so in that sense, he was well-prepared. And in the first debate, he did extraordinarily well in part because the President did not do extraordinarily well. He did badly, as a matter of fact.
HH: I’ve got to come back to that. In fact, you report, 16 mock debates total, a detail I had not seen before.
HH: So Rob Portman must be the smartest guy in America on debating, because debating Mitt Romney 16 times one on one would make you a pretty doggone good debater. So I’ve got to talk to the Senator about that at some point.
DB: Well, Rob Portman is in many ways the unsung, the MVP of that campaign, because he helped try to win Ohio, though they fell short in the end, and he helped with the debates. And he is a very good debate opponent for people, and he’s smart. I mean, I’ll tell you a story. The night of the Denver debate, I was in the press filing area before the debate, and was talking to Mrs. Portman. And she said that in 2000, Rob Portman was playing Al Gore for President Bush, or then-Governor Bush. And he had predicted that Al Gore would try to sort of invade Bush’s space on the stage during the town hall meeting, and Bush was surprised. Do you really think he’d do that? I don’t think he’d do that. Well, as we remember, he did do it, and Bush was prepared for it. So that was the kind of thing that, I mean, Portman brings both policy expertise, but also an intuitive sense of how the opponent is likely to operate. So he was a worthy adversary for Romney, and Romney was tuned up for that first debate.
HH: Let me pay you, by the way, a compliment on details that matter that are so important. On Page 266 of Collision 2012, Beth Myers is talking to Rob Portman about possibly being a vice presidential nominee, and it reads, “The family conversations that Portman had had included discussion of one potentially difficult issue. Portman’s son, Will, had told his parents earlier that he was gay. They knew that if Portman was selected, this would become public, but agreed that it should not be a barrier to Portman entering the vice presidential sweepstakes. As the family deliberated, Portman called Beth Myers to tell her about his son. Without checking with Romney, Myers offered an unequivocal response. That was not a problem, and would have no bearing on Portman’s potential selection.” I am not surprised by that. I am, in fact, I would be horrified if anyone said anything other than that. But that Beth didn’t check is A) underscores the relationship between her and Governor Romney, and B) that it wouldn’t matter to Romney tells us a lot that the public never knew about him, and C) I just think that’s a fascinating bit of detail that tells so much in four lines.
DB: I was fascinated when I learned that, also. I mean, and that came from Beth Myers when I asked her about it, because the book was basically written at the time that Portman changed his position on same sex marriage and talked about his son. And so my immediate question was how did this affect the VP selection process? And so I went back and asked her about it, and she said exactly this, that she talked to Portman, Portman told her about it, and her reaction without talking to Romney was no problem, it’s not going to have any effect on the selection process. And then as the book goes on to say, he also talked to Romney after that, and Romney said, verified the same thing, said that’s not an issue in the way we’re looking at the selection process. It does tell you something about Beth Myers’ relationship with Romney, the total confidence that he had in her, and her ability to operate. I mean, there are very few people who have that kind of relationship with Governor Romney. She’s one, obviously. But it also does tell you something about Romney in the way he thinks and the way he operates.
HH: Yeah, the incredible loyalty of Team Romney is something we want to come back to, matched, of course, by Team Obama. And we will get to Team Obama. We’ve got two hours, and we’re just halfway through the first of it.
— – – – –
HH: Another one, Dan, is the conversation between Governor Romney and Chris Christie. “Governor, are you prepared to resign to be my running mate?” he asks him on Page 269. I’d not seen this anywhere. Maybe I missed this, but I thought it was original reporting in Collision 2012 that that had come out. Was that news to you when you found out about that?
DB: Yes, it was. There was a hint in the New York press that he had refused, that he refused to resign, because he did not think Romney could win. That was the only suggestion that there was something out there. But there is a lot of new material in the book about that whole episode, and it’s a fascinating moment in the campaign. The issue was this. Christie was clearly under quite serious consideration along with a handful of other people to be vice president. There is an obscure rule known as the pay to play rule, promulgated by the Securities And Exchange Commission, which basically says bond dealers, big financial institutions that do bond underwriting in states, can’t, their people can’t contribute to the campaigns of people who make decisions affecting whether they get the business. This came into play with Chris Christie, a sitting governor who was clearly covered by this. If he were to be on the ticket, how would that affect the Romney campaign’s ability to raise money from these financial institutions? And there was conversation about that between the Romney campaign, between Beth Myers, and Bill Palatucci, who was the Christie advisor who was assigned to deal with vice presidential stuff with the campaign. And at one point, Governor Romney called Christie directly. Christie was on his way back to New Jersey from the National Governor’s Association meeting in Williamsburg, and he got him on his cell phone and raised this question. And there are, you know, as with all of these conversations, there are two versions of exactly how it went down, and I’m not, I mean, I can’t tell you which is the precise version, but there is agreement that there was a discussion about pay to play, and that Romney said basically, the only way around this is for you to resign. Would you be willing to resign to be the vice president? Now a couple of things about this, one is A) Christie was not ready to resign as governor no matter what.
DB: Understandably. I mean, you know, whether he thought Romney could win or not, he wasn’t going to resign his office to be vice president. But I think that the people around Christie took this as a sign that he was in fact, at that point, the choice, that it was in a sense his to decline. The Romney view is no, that is not where Governor Romney’s head was at that moment. This was one of a number of conversations that Governor Romney was having with prospective vice presidential nominees, all of whom in one way or another had some issues that he wanted to discuss with them so that in him saying you know, would you resign to be my vice president, did not mean he was offering him the job at that point. I think the Christie people feel that it was tantamount to an offer. And in their memoirs, we’ll try to sort this out many years from now, I suspect. But it was a fascinating moment, and frankly, Hugh, one that I knew basically nothing about.
HH: No, it’s one of the reasons why Collision 2012 is sort of a must-read, because there’s so much detail like that. About the Christie speculation, I interviewed the Governor from Lordstown one day during the campaign, and I introduced him at the California delegation breakfast during Tampa, and Ann Coulter would argue with me. We were out on the road doing a couple of events that it should be Christie. And I’m not one of those conservatives who are mad at the Governor for giving a hug to Obama. That’s what states do when a state’s been devastated and you’re an emotional guy, and I think he’s formidable. The key question, though, is would he have made a difference in the end? And Dan Balz, this is wholly, obviously, speculative. If it had been Romney-Christie and not Romney-Ryan, would Mitt Romney be the president?
DB: I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you the reason why. I think that in the end, others have said this. This is not an original thought with me. In the end, vice presidents don’t make a real difference on the ticket. Vice presidential selections can have an impact when they are chosen. They can provide energy to a campaign that needs it. They can reframe a debate for a time. But in the end, people go make their decision about the choice between the two people at the top of the ticket, and not underneath it. And so I think that that probably, we probably would have seen the same outcome.
HH: Let me tell you the one sneaking thing in the back of my mind is that Christie would have been better equipped than Ryan, and I’m a big fan of Chairman Ryan, and thought he did a fine job in the campaign, and regret that I asked him the marathon question, of all the stupid things I did. You get the inside there. That was really just dumb of me, and I still feel bad about that. But the thing Christie might have done is he could have gone after Benghazi, given his prosecutorial background, and his outside of D.C. status, and his personality, far more effectively than the campaign was able to do. This isn’t a Ryan problem so much as it is they just didn’t have the right personality set to go after it in the way that you needed to prosecute that case, Dan Balz.
DB: Well you know, I think there’s some truth to that, although you know, I mean the problem for Romney on Benghazi was that he stepped into the middle of it, in a sense, 12 hours earlier than he should have, which is to say they issued a statement criticizing the President before everybody knew all of the facts on the night this thing was happening. And so it muddied the water, and it made it more difficult for him to come back and make a strong case. There obviously were a lot of questions about Benghazi that were difficult for the administration to answer, and I think that had the Romney campaign waited a day or two to begin to make a case, it would have been a more effective argument. Now Governor Christie is, as you say, he’s a good prosecutor. And he delivered some of the toughest critiques of President Obama of anybody in the campaign. And so he probably would have done it in the election. But again, I’m not sure that in the end, that Benghazi was going to be the determinative issue in the election. I still think it came back to the other things that ultimately did decide it.
HH: More on that, especially Benghazi, in Hour 2. Don’t go anywhere, America.
— – – – –
HH: Dan Balz, I have to mention, I want to thank you for including a Tweet of mine. I’ve never had a Tweet of mine in a book before.
HH: And so that’s kind of a first for me. But I also think that you actually are ahead of the game here in understanding what’s happened to the spin room. It doesn’t matter, because Twitter is the spin room, and Twitter actually matters enormously in this campaign, because it did shape public opinion, not me, I’m talking about the mass of it. I don’t know if a lot of the MSM’ers are quite aware, yet, of how everything is different because of this.
DB: It’s extraordinary. I mean, the technology changes every cycle, and the smart campaigns are on top of it, and often the losing campaigns are not. But I don’t think I can remember a cycle between one presidential election and another in which the technology changed as much and as significantly as it did between 2008 and 2012, and largely because of Twitter. I mean, Facebook existed in 2008, it was not what it was by 2012. It existed to some extent. It was a much more powerful medium in 2012. Twitter in particular has become the new poster board for the political community and others to talk to one another in real time. And we saw this play out in all of the debates, but never more so than in the Denver debate. In that 90 minutes, there were 10 million Tweets sent out by people all over the country about that debate, and some skillful younger people here at the Washington Post figured out a way to take that database of millions of Tweets and bring it down to about, I think we ended up with about 8,000 Tweets from either people who have big followings, or Tweets that were retweeted often. And out of that, then, I culled out, you know, some of the really good ones to include in the narrative of what happened in Denver. And as you say, I mean, it has completely revolutionized the way we operate on debate night. It used to be that there would be the debate, that the campaigns would spend the last 15 minutes before the end of the debate in their war rooms planning their talking points. They would flood out into the area where the press is into what’s known as, or still is known as Spin Alley, and make their case that their candidate had won the debate. In Denver, this debate was decided and conventional wisdom congealed probably within the first 20 minutes of that debate…
DB: …all against President Obama, all because of his lackluster performance, and because, as a number of people noticed, Governor Romney was very much on his game. And there was nothing that the Obama people could do after that to change perceptions. Now they will argue that he didn’t do as badly as it seemed, or if you read the transcript, he did better. But there’s no question that Twitter decided who had won that debate almost instantly.
HH: Yeah, it was spun before the spinning began.
— – – – –
HH: I’m curious, Dan Balz, downloads versus hardcover sales, I have to have a hard copy if I’m going to do an interview of it so I can check back on my earmarks and all that sort of thing. But are political books being transitioned over to download quality in the way that novels have? Or do people still want to have them for the note taking purpose?
DB: Well, I think it’s personal taste, Hugh. I mean, I think a lot of people have gravitated to the E-books because they’re more portable. You can carry around more books in a Kindle or an iPad or a Nook than you can in your bag unless you’ve got a stronger back than I’ve got. But I think a lot of people want the hardcovers. They enjoy holding a real book in their hand, they do like to take notes on it, and so for a lot of people, the real book is the real thing.
HH: Yeah, I don’t think for political books it will ever be able to go, because you just need your own annotation. I used to look at President Nixon’s library at how deeply annotated his books were, and I think that’s how we remember and learn. All right, back to the campaign. My short summary for everyone, Sandy, Candy and ORCA. Why did Mitt Romney lose? Sandy, Candy and ORCA. And I want to walk through those with you. First of all, an event that no one can anticipate, and you know, people like me, we start checking the weather map three weeks before the campaign, because the old adage is bad weather helps Republicans unless it completely doesn’t, right? Wasn’t that the old rule that bad weather helps Republicans?
DB: Well, that was the feeling, that the Republican voter was going to turn out more in bad weather than the Democrats, and so if it was a stormy day or a snowy day that the Republicans would have a little bit of an advantage. But I’m not sure any of those old rules work anymore.
HH: I know. But now along comes Sandy, this horrific event from which many people are still recovering. And I say this without being too cynical, President Obama played it perfectly. And I think he played it perfectly, because he did what presidents ought to do the right way. But he also had a media supporting him in a way that the media didn’t support President Bush during Katrina. How do you asses this in retrospect about disasters in campaigns, Dan Balz?
DB: Well, I mean, I think that, I think disasters can hurt a candidate more than they can help a candidate. I think that missteps get magnified much more than good performance. Now having said that, I think you’re right. I think the President handled this very, very skillfully. And nobody around him did not underestimate the political significance of handling it properly, or the danger of not handling it properly, and that’s, you know, in a sense, that’s a fine line, right? Because if you look like you’re doing things simply for the political benefit of it, there’s some potential backlash. So you’ve got to be careful. But you know, he broke off campaigning, he went back to Washington, he was monitoring events, he was on top of them, he was in touch with the governors, and particularly with Governor Christie. He went to New Jersey where he was embraced by Governor Christie. And all of that, you know, looked like he was attentive to his job. I mean, I think that I actually don’t think that this election was determined by Hurricane Sandy, and for this reason, that the Romney campaign clearly got thrown off by it, because he had to break off campaigning for several days. And they feel that that broke his momentum. But if you look at some of the exit polling, what you see are two things which seem contradictory, but let me walk you through it. One is you see, I’m not sure I’ve got the figure off the top of my head, but 15 or 18% of the public said this was a major factor in their decision making, and they went very strongly for the President. The other reality is that I think it was 70%, or a huge percentage of people say they had made up their mind about this campaign before Hurricane Sandy ever occurred, including many of the people who say it was a big factor in their decision. And when I did some back of the envelope calculations, based on the idea that that many people had more or less decided what they were going to do in this election, Governor Romney would have had to just dramatically over-perform with the rest of them in that final stretch to win.
DB: And so I think that was it a big moment in the campaign? Absolutely. But was it a decisive moment? I don’t think so. I know that some of the Romney people disagree with that.
HH: Yeah, you’d have to drill down into Ohio and Florida and Virginia and Colorado. Colorado was so big that I don’t know. But all right, let me turn to the one biggest disagreement I have with Collision 2012, and it’s really about emphasis. It’s about Benghazi and Candy Crowley. Candy’s been a longtime friend of this show. She came on after the debate, after the campaign was over, and we debated her intervention. I’m very critical of it. I think it was just a mistake. It wasn’t an intentional sort of liberal media intervention, but I think it was a massive mistake. But on, in your treatment of it, you seem to side with the idea that the President did call it an act of terror. And as I went back to prepare for the interview, Dan Balz, I read the whole transcript of that Rose Garden statement at 10:43 in the morning the day after Benghazi. Ten paragraphs into a 12 paragraph statement, the President says, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” The next couple of days, he goes on, I think it was Univision and refuses to call it an act of terror, we had the whole Rice fiasco. I think the media failed utterly in that debate and its aftermath. What, are you uneasy with what happened? It just seems to me…
DB: I’m not uneasy with it. I take your points. I mean, I think that those are legitimate points. But you know, here’s the way I look at it in the context of deciding an election, or what counts in an election. The debate is obviously a big moment. And in that moment, when Governor Romney and the President had this exchange, put Candy Crowley aside for a moment, when they had this exchange, Governor Romney, it was one of the few moments that Governor Romney was not prepared for the answer he heard from the President. I mean, I watched Governor Romney in other debates when a candidate would say something, and he came right back with a rejoinder that said to me he knows this person’s record better than this person knows it. And in this case, when the President said I did say that, he was totally disbelieving. And if he had been prepared, and look, it’s impossible to prepare for everything, so I’m not knocking Governor Romney in this case. But if he had said, if he had said you said acts of terror almost in passing in that Rose Garden, and for the next several days, you wouldn’t go near it, he would have been on stronger ground. And I think that moment might have played out differently.
HH: I agree. But that’s why Candy intervened at that moment. He asked a question, which is always dangerous in a debate, and the President said proceed, Governor. And then Candy intervened. And that’s when Romney made a, you could watch it in real time. I have no inside knowledge here. I’ve just watched it a few times. He assessed that maybe I’m wrong, I’m not recollecting my memory correctly, and he retreated. She, in essence, flanked him. And I think probably the biggest single significant intervention by a journalist in a campaign to my memory. And so I won’t ask you to comment on what she…
DB: And I would say that the Bernard Shaw question of Michael Dukakis in 1988 would be number one.
HH: Oh, okay. You’re right. Okay, maybe it’s number two. We’ll have to go back and look at it. Let me ask you the second one, though.
HH: CBS had a tape of the President talking about Benghazi. They did not air it until the last week of the campaign. It had a complete and utter relevance to the campaign, to the Benghazi issue, to this whole issue to which the whole country returns repeatedly now for good reason. What’s your assessment of that choice, Dan Balz?
DB: You know, Hugh, I don’t know enough about that to be able to assess it. I would think that if they had an interview that they thought was newsworthy, they would have put it on the air. But I don’t know the circumstances…
HH: Okay, the someday, look…
HH: They put some of the interview on the air, but they didn’t put all of it.
DB: But not that part.
HH: Not that part.
HH: And I just, because when we come back to the only other serious quarrel I have with the book, it’s whether or not who deserves the criticism for running the in the ditch campaign. Now you used competing emails. I’m looking for my notes on which page you do this on, saying both of the campaigns got kind of down and dirty. And you had a couple of emails from people, one saying look at how awful the Obama people are…
DB: Right, right, right, from two different citizens who…
HH: Right, but I mean in reality, Team Romney did nothing like the Team Obama assault on Romney’s character, did it?
DB: Well, there’s no question that the Obama campaign…and, but…that the Obama campaign aired, spent much more money on negative advertising on Romney over the summer than Romney was able to spend going after the President. The most egregious example of going over the line was from Priorities USA, which was the Obama, the superPAC supporting Obama, where they had the fellow who basically in essence accused Romney of killing his wife who had cancer. There was no question that that was out of bounds, and that was the biggest.
HH: Hold that thought, Dan. We’ve got to go to break.
— – – – –
HH: So Dan, we were talking about the relative brass-knuckled low ball thrown at the head sort of stuff, any metaphor for dirty play you can come up with, of Team Obama versus Team Romney. And I just don’t even think it was close, but you were saying yeah, they did accuse Romney of killing the man’s wife, but other than that, it was okay.
DB: Well, I wasn’t saying other than that, it was okay. I mean, the piece I wrote at the time basically said these two candidates, or basically these two campaigns have said they want a great debate, and America, you’re not getting it. And here’s some of the things that are going on. At that moment, the Romney campaign was accusing the President and the administration of essentially totally gutting the work requirement on welfare reform. Almost all of the available evidence said that was not correct. But they were in a position, and it’s recounted in the book, where their feeling was the only thing that was moving numbers was when they could launch a negative attack on President Obama. Now you know, you could make the argument that a superPAC attacking a candidate for contributing to the death of a woman is magnitudes worse than you know, talking about a policy decision, whether that’s accurate or not. And that’s a fair point. But my point in that piece that I wrote, which I recounted in the book, was that we were at a moment, I mean, I called this book Collision 2012 in part because this was supposed to be an election in which we had a great collision of philosophies and ideas over the role and scope of government, how to fix the economy, big issues, big questions, and that at the end of the summer, we were so far from that debate that it wasn’t even funny.
HH: Yeah, Dan Balz, you anticipated my response, because in fact, I think in the final analysis, a lot of those of us who supported Mitt Romney believe that they would not, as Churchill said of Lord Rosebery, they would not stoop, they did not conquer. They did not go low enough, and the gutter ball out of the Chicago team was so bad. And my critique of the moral relativism critiques of the campaign, I want to go to Page 277, I finally found it, a paragraph by you. “Partisanship was bred into the electorate and influenced voters’ views. When I wrote about the toxic nature of the campaign, I received two emails in response. One blamed Obama and his campaign for the tone. ‘The onus is far and away on the side of the Democrats and you know it,’ the writer said. ‘They’ve called Romney everything under the sun, almost, namely a murderer, a felon, a tax cheat. Then they cruelly made fun of Mrs. Romney’s affliction,’ she’d suffered from MS, ‘by cruelly castigating the cost of upkeep for her horse which she uses as therapy. It’s the vicious Democratic campaign machine which has denigrated Romney and now his vice president.’ The writer of the second email took the opposite view. ‘Have you been completely unaware of all the ridiculous Obama received over the three plus years,’ the writer said. ‘He spent the first two and a half years trying to get along and asking Republicans for involvement, and what he got instead were accusations of death panels in his health care plan, that he’s unqualified to be president, that he’s a secret Muslim trying to steer the U.S. in al Qaeda’s favor. And Romney has not distanced himself from any of these claims.’” Now here’s my point, Dan Balz, and I think you probably already get it. All that, a lot of terrible things have been said about the President, and I denounce them routinely, you know, the secret Muslim craziness, and just the crazy lunatic fringe in this country on both sides. But in this campaign, Team Obama not only had fingerprints on, they wanted to be filmed with the weapon often on most of the gutter ball, and Romney’s team just didn’t play that way.
DB: Well, two points. First, you can’t look at the campaign in isolation, which is to say the campaign plays out against a much broader conversation, acrimonious as it has been, of four years of the Obama presidency.
HH: True enough.
DB: And that if you are in one camp or the other, you are hypersensitive to anything coming from anywhere, whether it’s the responsibility of your opponent’s campaign directly or not. You’re just willing to blame the other side, and therefore justify whatever you want to do. So that’s part of it. The interesting thing to me, Hugh, is it’s almost an opposite point. It’s why the Romney campaign was unable throughout this long election, starting with the Republican primaries and going forward through the general election, why they were unable to in a sense humanize Mitt Romney, the thing we talked about very early on. Why were they not able to bring the Mitt Romney that people around him knew and liked and admired? Why were they not able to deliver that to the American people much more effectively than they ever did?
HH: Yeah. Oh, I agree. There are things about this which will endlessly frustrate me because of that kind of question. But I do think that we are in a different world with Team Chicago than we’ve ever been before. Let me ask you about the tech edge, or the geek gap as it’s called. A) Is it as real as I perceive it to be, as big, as wide? And B), have elections almost passed a point of no return, that it’s really about demographics, marketing, data points, big data, and manipulation of emotion than it is about these big themes about where the country is headed?
DB: It’s a really good question, and we could talk another two hours about that. First on the question of just the geek gap, there is no question that the Obama campaign was way ahead of the Romney campaign in their ability to identify their supporters and get them out to the polls. I mean, all of everything that is done on what we call the ground game is all aimed at that one thing, which is to get people out to vote for you person. A lot goes into that, a tremendous amount of research, and the Obama campaign as, they were devoted to doing research of all kinds – polling, focus groups, analytics, all kinds of things. The other thing is, they basically had, you know, four years to do this, and the Romney campaign had a matter of months. The reason I say that is the Obama campaign came out of 2008, they did an after action report on that – what worked and what didn’t. They went, they dove down really deep, and what they produced was a booklet of okay, here’s what we’ve got to do. They then spent time with, during the 2010 election, doing some testing through the Democratic National Committee. Once they got to Chicago in the spring of 2011, they knew kind of what they needed to do, and they needed software to do it. They needed tech people to do it. They spent most of 2011 perfecting these things so that when they began the work of finding their voters and getting them out of to the polls, they knew how to do it. And the Romney campaign, often through the course of the election, scoffed at the size of the Obama team in, let’s say, Ohio, 700 paid staffers as I recall.
DB: It was like, what are they doing with all those people? They don’t need those people. By the end of the campaign, I mean, I had a conversation through email with one of the people who helped run the Ohio operation for Governor Romney, and he said it was basically only at the end that they realized what all those people were doing, and the degree to which they were outmatched.
HH: 30 seconds to the break, does the RNC know this? Have they internalized it, genuinely understand this?
DB: I don’t know the answer to that. Do they know it? Yes. Are they trying to do something about it? Yes. But I think that, I mean, the question is, can the RNC create something and then hand it off to the candidate? Will that work? The Republicans have often done it that way. Maybe they can, but they’ve got a lot of work to do.
— – – – – –
HH: It’s got a great cover, because it sort of pictorially represents just how everything came together in an epic campaign that went on forever. One person on there, obviously, is, excuse me, not on there that surprised me, is Hillary Clinton’s picture is not on the front page of this.
DB: She’s on the 2016 book.
HH: (laughing) That’s it. But every, it’s become like an alien series, the old movies. Every campaign is already within the campaign that’s underway. We could probably talk about 2020. And the Secretary of State was embedded in this campaign. In fact, let me ask you this, Dan, on the night of Benghazi, she talks with Mr. Hicks at 2am in the morning, and Ambassador Stevens is missing, they’re destroying the computer discs, they’re under siege in Benghazi, Tripoli is evacuating, and the Secretary of State talks to her number two guy, the guy who’s in command, and then she never calls him back in the rest of the night. Are you surprised by that?
DB: A little bit, yeah. Yeah, but in the context of the campaign, I don’t think that Hillary Clinton was a character in the way that the other people we have on the cover are.
HH: No, I think the reason that she didn’t call him back is that she immediately realized this was a toxic event for her presidential ambitions if she played it wrong, so she went to the sidelines and sat it out, because it could have gone so badly wrong. She really didn’t play in this campaign, but the big dog did.
DB: Well, he absolutely did, and tirelessly. Let me make one point about Secretary Clinton and Benghazi. You know, there’s another chapter to play out on this if she becomes a candidate in 2016. I mean, this will obviously be revisited in that context. We will get a better understanding then of whether it becomes a political liability or not. I mean, I think that, you know, we can’t tell the answer to that. I think people around here think it will not be, but you know, if she becomes a candidate, it’s certainly going to come back. And then there will be the real debate about it.
HH: And now looking forward, we have to do a little 2016 in the middle of a book about 2012. Obviously, Chris Christie’s impacted, Marco Rubio’s impacted, Paul Ryan. I did my first presidential line of 2016 a couple of weeks ago. I had Jeb, if they choose to run, at 2-1, and Rubio and Christie at 3-1, and Thune at 5-1, and Cruz at 10-1. Everyone gets impacted by this. Are you assuming that the Secretary of State Clinton is in, and former Secretary of State Clinton is in, and that she will be their nominee?
DB: Oh, I would never make a prediction this far out about either of those. I mean, is she doing everything to suggest she’s going to run? Yes. But could she wake up in eight months and decide she kind of likes this life of giving speeches at $200,000 dollars a pop, and the freedom to move around and do that? That’s possible. I’ll tell you, I mean, my view of this has shifted over time. I mean, a year and a half ago, I thought there was much less chance that she would run. Sometime middle of last year to late last year, I sort of became agnostic. I think I’m where most people are now, which is the assumption that she’s certainly pointing to a run, and in a sense, she’ll have to say no rather than yes. But we’re a long way off from that. She doesn’t have to make a real decision until sometime next year. And knowing her, she’ll be fully prepared if she decides to say yes, but could in the end say no. If she becomes a candidate, she’s certainly, you know, it’s hard to see someone beating her for the Democratic nomination, but a lot of people said that in 2008, and Barack Obama did. There is no Barack Obama on the horizon to challenge her, but you never know. As a general election candidate, she will be formidable if she’s the nominee, but you know, nobody would hand her the election in 2016 at this point.
HH: You know, at 2016, a Clinton-Jeb Bush race would have the benefit of allowing us to recycle all those signs from ’92. But I’m curious what you think…
DB: Good for the environment, right?
HH: Good for the environment, and it’s just some things won’t change. I think Jeb Bush is a formidable, extraordinarily competent candidate. He’s not much in Collision 2012. What do you think? Because I mean, there’s a whole campaign in the background on Spanish language television that very few reporters know about, Dan.
DB: Right, and…
HH: Go ahead.
DB: There’s a, I mean, one of the chapters in the book is called The First Primary.
DB: And it looks at the people who did not run, who had they run might have created a different environment in the Republican nomination battle for Romney, and might have made it more difficult for Governor Romney to end up as the nominee. One of the people that I tried to do some reporting on was Jeb Bush. And from what I learned in that reporting was that he did not give any serious consideration to running in 2012, that he had looked at running for the Senate when Mel Martinez announced that he was retiring and leaving the Senate. He made the decision he wasn’t going to run, and did not revisit the idea of running for public office after that. Now 2016? He looks like he’s looking very, very seriously at it. And I think you’re right. He would be a very formidable candidate.
HH: I think everyone who’s looking at it are reading Collision 2012.
— – – – –
HH: Wrapping up just an extraordinarily fun conversation with Dan Balz of the Washington Post about his new book, Collision 2012, and I don’t want to forget to thank you, Dan, for making so much time available. I do appreciate it, and a lot of people won’t do much more than a 10 minute interview when they’re doing book tours, and I appreciate you taking the time.
DB: Well, I appreciate you giving me the time. Thank you.
HH: Now I want to finish by talking about your business. The summer trip that Romney went on, which you detail at great length, was sort of a, it wasn’t really a summer trip. It was a scrum with the media. It was like having a dozen Jay Carney’s on the plane. And I say Jay Carney, because was the Time Magazine reporter who became an operative. And I sometimes think that the MSM has become full of press secretaries in waiting for Democratic figures. And do you worry that your business, you’ve never done that. No one ever thinks of Dan Balz, and I think there are a few others. I think Jake Tapper’s another one. I trust them completely to be objective and honest. But I’m really beginning to doubt…Mike Allen, another friend of yours, and I know him a little bit, I think he’s very fair, and I think Mark Leibovich is. But I think the media has become so partisan, and of course, I think it’s merged at the hip with the DNC in 95% of those cases, that I don’t know that you guys are ever going to get trusted again. What do you think?
DB: Well, you know, obviously I’m going to disagree with you on this, but for a couple of reasons that I think are valid. You know, I don’t think reporters that I know are out there looking to become an operative for the Democratic Party. Do some of them do that in the end? Yes. But I don’t think that the vast, vast majority have that in mind at all. I mean, I think that they are out to try to get the story. I think what’s changed in our business, Hugh, is the velocity of information and the kind of information that can grab a headline or grab eyeballs and clicks on a website. And the nature of political reporting has changed along with the way we deliver and distribute information so that there is more time and attention, there are more resources put into finding that embarrassing quote from five years ago, or catching somebody in a gaffe, because so often now political stories are created out of a single quotation.
DB: And that, to me, is not a good development in the way the news media does its work. But you know, I’m not an ostrich with my head in the sand. It’s not like I’m going to say well, you know, if we could only go back to the good old days. The good old days in the good old days weren’t as good as people remember, either. So I think that’s the real problem, that in the way we think about reporting campaigns, we’ve tilted more in that direction than we have in deeper reporting, and being able to step back. I mean, every event we try to often make more of than we should. I’ve told this anecdote to others, but in the middle of the campaign, I was home on a Friday night, and my wife and I ordered a Chinese take-out. And the guy brought it, and we opened the fortune cookies, and mine said something like analyze only when necessary. And I said to Nancy, I said this is just perfect. I said this just sums up everything that you want to know about our business right now, which is that everything doesn’t deserve analysis. Everything doesn’t deserve commentary. Everything doesn’t deserve scorn or ridicule. And yet it’s easy to do that and say to yourself, well, I’m covering the campaign the way it should be covered.
HH: Here’s my worry, and I’m trying not to be the 57 year old cranky guy like Clint Eastwood in the movie where he was sitting on the front porch.
HH: But I look out and I see these amazingly talented people like Dave Weigel and Guy P. Benson and Mary Katharine Ham. Heck, on your team, the Cillizza gang, Chris and Del Wilbur, you’ve got amazing talent.
DB: Phil Rucker.
HH: Yeah, Phil Rucker, great, been on the show. And you look at all these amazingly talented young people, but they have much more freedom to impact events, and much less experience matched with that freedom than ever before. I mean, the by-lines, you don’t need…by-lines are the brand now. You don’t need permission from anyone to change the campaign. There aren’t any editors really left with the velocity. And this giant scrum, there aren’t a lot of people who have put years in weighing the relative merits of a story, Dan Balz, and I think that’s troubling.
DB: Well, I don’t disagree with you on that. And I think that there are, as you say, there are a lot of very, very talented young reporter. You know, as I go out on the campaign trail, I admire and I enjoy their work, and I think they’re really good. But in a sense, the system, if you will, is a different system than when I started covering politics. And the incentives are different. The motivations are different. And therefore, the product is sometimes, it’s often different. And you know, in one way or another, it just needs a kind of a rebalancing. But I don’t know how you do that. And I don’t say it needs a rebalancing in partisan way so much as just a rebalancing in what’s important. I mean, one thing we forget about, and I learned this from the late David Broder, campaigns are about the country, and they’re about the voters. We shouldn’t be so full of navel gazing. I mean, it used to be that we think that it’s about the candidates. And now, often, it’s about the political conversation that a handful of insiders create with one another.
HH: Last question, because I want to make sure I ask you this. What I was most troubled about the campaign, and I’ve talked about this with Leibovich and Alter and everybody, is that we’re a nation at war, and the campaign hardly touched about it. People are dying every week, blessedly fewer now in Afghanistan, but we’re still losing guys around the world. And the campaign, we’re at war, Dan Balz. And there really wasn’t that focus. Were you surprised by that?
DB: Well, I was surprised only in this way, Hugh. I was surprised as you went around and talked to people, as you looked at public opinion polling, that those issues had fallen way, way down in terms of people’s concerns. Now it’s understandable. With the unemployment rate what it was, with the economic shock that we went through after 2008, with the amount of wealth that people lost in their homes or their 401k’s, people were thinking much more about their own economic well-being, and which candidate was going to be able to do something to make that a little better. And the wars receded from public view. I always thought that they deserved a much more rigorous and vigorous debate than they got, but I think that the candidates judged that the public wasn’t paying attention about that, and that the debate was going to be won or lost on the economy.
HH: Wow. Dan Balz, a terrific book, Collision 2012. Look forward to talking to you again early and often. Enjoy the book tour as much as is humanly possible.
End of interview.