Whether Barack Obama’s presidency will tilt more toward FDR or Jimmy Carter in the legacy department remains to be seen; either way, the 2008 election stands as a landmark, for self-evident reasons. Even if it isn’t a permanent paradigm-shifter on par with Reagan’s election in 1980, there’ll be no shortage of books trying to puzzle out the implications. Not the first and certainly not the last, Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson’s overview The Battle For America 2008: The Story Of An Extraordinary Election is a comparatively small volume; in spite of its large title, it might as well be called The Battle For New American Electoral Strategies. Scrupulously non-partisan and almost completely uninterested in whatever ideologies and ideas might’ve been at stake, Balz and Johnson offer a swift guide to the strategies executed by the various major campaigns in every primary state; the actual national election takes up less than 80 text-pages out of of 390.
Not that The Battle For America 2008 is free of small revelations for political junkies; Balz and Johnson are well-stocked on anonymous sources. Given the current news, it’s especially interesting that Edward Kennedy offered his primary endorsement with the stipulation that Obama make universal health care his first priority, and the material on Sarah Palin presents her ill-starred national debut in the most plausibly sympathetic light yet. But Balz and Johnson don’t do big picture. Some token context-setting material from focus groups about the mood of the nation aside, they’re firmly embedded in the campaigns. This isn’t the journalistic version of The War Room, though; individual personalities are set aside in favor of the campaign strategies. The Obama team started from nothing, pioneered delegate-splitting strategies for winning primaries, and evolved past Obama’s initial lack of focus and exhaustion to make him a formidable candidate. The McCain campaign, mired in disagreement from the start, never really advanced much past its initial disadvantages. The story Balz and Johnson tell is familiar in broad strokes, but fresh on minutiae without turning into impenetrable number-crunching.
The book reads easily enough, but at the end, it’s hard to say what the point is. The candidates become the least important part of the narrative, supporting players in the Democratic Party’s battle to bring itself out of years of opposition-party exile. But what would it have hurt to connect the dots between how and why it matters? In the end, Balz and Johnson have come up with interesting notes for a study with more time to think itself out.