2014: Another Democratic Debacle?

Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama having lunch with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Oval Office Private Dining Room, May 2012

Here’s our current political situation:

• A Democratic president has twice won the popular vote, both times by comfortable margins.

• In the Senate, Democrats (with two independents) hold 55 percent of the seats, receiving nearly that share of the votes in their most recent races.

• Republican now have a thirty-one-seat edge in the House of Representatives, although Democrats together won more votes than Republicans in the 2012 House races.

• Republican-appointed justices freely use their 5–4 majority on the Supreme Court, with only one of them an occasional moderate.

• While Obama twice carried Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, in 2010 those states elected GOP governors and legislatures.

Can the Democrats muster enough votes to win back both the House of Representatives and state governments where the president has prevailed? Several books analyzing Barack Obama’s reelection should provide some clues. In 2012, he drew almost 66 million supporters to the polls. In theory, such a pool should be sufficient to turn the tide in state and district contests. Indeed, Republicans have done this with fewer adherents. Why can’t the Democrats?


Double Down brings to mind CBS’s You Are There, which placed audiences at, for example, the signing of the Magna Carta and the storming of the Bastille. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann describe a “secret retreat” for GOP donors in Bachelor Gulch, Colorado, and then George Clooney’s “star-studded” party for Obama that raised a record $15 million. Their book is heralded as an inside story of the 2012 election, centering on “back rooms and closed-door meetings,” where aides and advisers and consultants lose their tempers and stumble for lack of sleep. Much is familiar, but it is useful to recall Mitt Romney pleading that he’s “severely conservative.”

The authors try to give equal time to both parties, but the real drama is in the GOP suites. If Halperin and Heilemann weren’t in all those closed rooms themselves, they’ve spoken with people who were, most of whom apparently have total recall. To maintain suspense, the election is depicted as a dead heat until Obama wins it. Hence nearly an entire chapter suggests that Obama’s listless Denver debate could have lost him the race. But it also suggests that Romney—“the most gaffe-prone nominee in anyone’s memory”—was doomed from the start. If he had not made his quip about 47 percent of the nation, he might well have said something equally ruinous.

While Double Down makes for intriguing reading, it tells us little about the election. It’s like rendering the Battle of Waterloo from—and never leaving—the generals’ tents. Missing are the 130 million Americans who turned out to vote. And equally…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.