I just got finished reading the book Game Change by reporters by John Heileman and Mark Halperin. It was a typical post-campaign book by reporters, giving inside information about what went on behind the scenes including juicy gossip like Elizabeth Edward’s insufferable behavior, John McCain’s love of the “F” word and constant tirades, and the odd relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton. What strikes me most about the book is the clear sense that putting politics aside, and going just from personality and character, the right man won the election in 2008.
Turning first to McCain vs. Obama. Two incidents from the book stand out as emblematic of why Obama was so much better suited for the job. First is the choice of Vice President. Obama leaned towards Biden early, but wanted the process to be thorough. Even though his staff did not like the idea of Hillary as VP (or even as Secretary of State), Obama kept putting her name out there. Only when the vetting was complete and the pros and cons of each candidate discussed did Biden get the formal nod.
McCain, on the other hand, was leaning towards Lieberman, and appeared set to choose him before he decided that such a choice would risk a divided GOP convention. At the last minute he scrambled. Most people were pointing to Minnesota Governor Pawlenty as a good choice, but McCain and his staff wanted a “game changer.” Someone to shake up the race and stop Obamamania. That’s when the name Sarah Palin came up. They were so enamored with her potential impact on the race that they did a very truncated vetting (they didn’t have time for more), and McCain went from the gut. He had hardly talked with her, his staff had no idea how little she knew of politics outside Alaska. It turned into a fiasco. Palin was loved by the extreme right, but pushed moderates away. The book gives an example of a focus group of “undecideds” where one woman was calling Obama a socialist and a Muslim. Puzzled, the Obama aide asked if she thought that why she was undecided. “Because if McCain dies then Palin becomes President,” was her answer.
Second was the financial crisis. McCain pressured President Bush to call a summit meeting with him and Obama attending. He wanted to ride in as the white knight and bring about a deal. Instead, he was marginal, didn’t really understand what was happening, and went with the flow. Obama was prepared, talked for the Democrats (the Senate and House leaders talked for the GOP), and was so impressive that one Bush aide decided then and there to vote for Obama.
Simply, McCain was erratic, somewhat lazy, went from the gut, preferred lofty slogans and missions to hard work and detail. Obama was steady, prepared, willing to compromise, and take his time on making difficult decisions. Obama focused on process and data, McCain on instinct and action. Obama’s style has its own weaknesses to be sure — sometimes the President has to act quickly on instinct — but in these two cases McCain’s style lead to disaster.
The case of Obama vs. Clinton is a bit more ambiguous. Clinton definitely is a driven ambitious politician whose life revolves around policy and politics. Like McCain, she felt Obama was not ready for the job, and didn’t think he’d be able to survive the GOP campaign of ‘personal destruction’ that would most assuredly be launched. She was ruthless at times, but seemed to have self-awareness of even her faults, understanding earlier than her husband that she would not be the nominee. It took her awhile to get why it was that the “superdelegates” weren’t streaming to her, she was so convinced that it was obvious she was the better candidate. In the end it’s less her faults than Obama’s strengths that make him the better choice.
One of Obama’s best traits in the book was his apparent refusal to hold grudges. He quickly forgave those who slighted him, and developed genuine respect for Hillary Clinton by the end of the campaign. At the end the book describes how Obama offered Hillary the Secretary of State job. She decided to refuse it, and told him. He responds by giving her one more day and saying that the economy is worse than people realize, and he needs someone big enough to handle foreign policy without a lot of Presidential oversight. She’s the only one who he believes has the stature to do that. “I need you, the country needs you,” he told her. He not only did not hold a grudge, but admitted that he did, in fact, need her help. The next day, she accepted.
Of all human traits, I have immense respect for the ability to forgive and not hold a grudge. You need self-confidence to do that. A confident person doesn’t feel diminished by, for example, telling Hillary he needs her. A confident person doesn’t feel like slights or insults from others do any real damage. Holding a grudge is a kind of back handed way of saying “you really hurt my feelings and it still stings.” This also increases rational thinking. Grudges are emotional, and create biased reads on the situation, causing the attribution error (if an opponent does something good, it’s the situation, if an opponent does something bad, it’s his nature; if I do something good it’s my nature, if I do something bad it’s the situation). Grudges cause people to see others in a worse light and themselves in a better light than is warranted.
Now, the policy preferences and politics of the candidates is a different matter than personality. Ultimately, though, I’d rather have a person I respect and whose personality seems right for such responsibility, then one who agrees with me more on policy. I come away from reading about Obama the man with increased respect and a sense that in these difficult times, at least we have someone of strong character at the helm.