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The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 [Hardcover]

Mark Halperin
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

3 Oct 2006
In The Way to Win, two of the country’s most accomplished political reporters explain what separates the victors from the victims in the unforgiving environment of modern presidential campaigns.

Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News, and John F. Harris, the national politics editor of The Washington Post, tell the story of how two families–the Bushes and the Clintons–have held the White House for nearly a generation and examine Hillary Clinton’s prospects for extending this record in 2008. Based on years of research, including private campaign memos and White House communications, The Way to Win reveals the surprising details of how the Bushes and Clintons have closely studied each the other’s successes and failures and used these lessons to shape their own strategies for winning elections and wielding power.

In the case of George W. Bush, the strategic genius is Karl C. Rove, arguably the most influential White House aide in history. For the first time, Halperin and Harris cut through the myths and controversies surrounding Rove to illuminate in brilliant, behind-the-scenes detail what he actually does–his Trade Secrets for winning elections.

In the case of the Clintons, the chief strategist is Bill Clinton himself. Drawing on their fifteen years reporting on and interviewing him, Halperin and Harris deconstruct and decipher the Clinton style, identifying the methods that all candidates can use in their pursuit of the White House.

The Way to Win takes a lively and irreverent approach, but Halperin and Harris also show the disturbing ways that American politics has become a Freak Show–their name for a political culture that provides incentives for candidates, activists, interest groups, and the news media to emphasize ideological extremism and personal attack. For the first time, Halperin and Harris describe how Freak Show campaigns orchestrated by the likes of Internet pioneer Matt Drudge forced Al Gore and John Kerry to lose control of their public images (with considerable help from the candidates’ own ineptitude) and lose the White House.

On the brink of what will be one of the most intense, most exciting presidential elections in American history, The Way to Win is the book that armchair political junkies have been waiting for. Filled with peerless analysis and eye-opening revelations from the trenches, it is a must read for everyone who follows American politics.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 454 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (3 Oct 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400064473
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400064472
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 16.3 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,416,824 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
If you are fascinated by how public image is shaped and the political agenda is manipulated by timely personal attacks, you'll think this is the best book ever about presidential politics. Two talented participants in the process (Mark Halpern, political director for ABC News, and John Harris, national political director of The Washington Post) describe the campaigns from 1992 through 2004 from the point of view of which strategies worked, why, and how other strategies that didn't work were derailed by opponents.

Although this is a long book, the lessons are simpler than the authors make them out:

1. Make your opponent look unpresidential (lacking a good character, especially) by planting well-researched evidence that the attack media will have a field day with at moments of key leverage in the campaign -- such as right after your opponent's nominating convention.

2. Bait your opponent by repeatedly sticking it to him or her in areas where the candidate cannot control her or his emotions.

3. Build a staff capability to pursue points one and two like what George W. Bush had in Karl Rove and company.

4. Act confident (even if you have no clue).

The authors also do some arguing about whether you are better off pitching your own supporters while ignoring those who don't agree . . . or trying to win in the center. Until George W. Bush came along, centrist strategies have typically worked best.

The book ends in an extended look at what Senator Hillary Clinton will have to do to win in 2008 and a more modest look at what Senator John McCain will have to do.

Unless you really want to read a biography of Karl Rove and Matt Drudge, you can skip most of this book and not miss anything important.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Offering Guideposts to Presidential Victory from a Decidedly Media-Oriented Vantage Point 5 Oct 2006
By Ed Uyeshima - Published on
With the 2008 Presidential election strategies well underway in covert measures, this incisive and eminently readable book provides an intriguing primer into what it may take for candidates to win in two years. ABC News political director Mark Halperin and the Washington Post's John F. Harris have collaborated to divulge the so-called trade secrets that have been behind the almost dynastic predominance of the Bush and Clinton administrations through past, current and perhaps future terms. It is interesting to note that neither author has been involved with a political campaign from the inside, successful or not, but they do lend a journalistic perspective that provides a great deal of credibility with their combined purview of the political media landscape. Consequently, they express their guarded respect of the political savvy of Karl Rove without sharing a detailed insider's profile of what makes him such a supreme strategist during the heat of a campaign.

On the other hand, Halperin and Harris spend a somewhat inordinate amount of time crediting Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report for much of the vote swaying in past elections. From their vantage point, they view Drudge as most pivotal in the Gore and Kerry defeats. They hold Gore and Kerry accountable to the point that they were not maintaining their public images relative to Drudge's online disclosures about the candidates' personal gaffes and political missteps. The big revelation here is that attempting to rise above the pervasive influence of the Web has apparently become tantamount to political suicide. Drudge's sharpened ability to scoop stories and frame candidates into personas unbeknownst to them has been the commentator's ongoing trump card. To the point that someone else is shaping the candidates' images, the co-authors make a compelling case about the importance of keeping attuned to the online scuttlebutt no matter how preposterous at times.

They also see Senator Hillary Clinton intently learning from her husband's example in setting the stage for her own likely candidacy in 2008. She is obviously delaying any such announcement until after this November's midterm elections because she can continue to reshape her persona and augment her coffers without undue scrutiny. Despite their extensive reporting backgrounds, Halperin and Harris manage to avoid the cynicism that could have easily seeped into their often insightful political handbook. For a more complete perspective on what it may take to win, I think it makes sense to read this in conjunction with George Lakoff's books on the conceptual metaphors that need to be employed to incite voters to support candidates, as well as Bill Clinton's own comprehensive account of his successful campaigns. There needs to be an understanding of perspectives from the inside as well as the outside to figure out the true way to win.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sharp political analysis for the political junkie 10 Oct 2006
By Mark Greenbaum - Published on
The Way to Win is a very good book. I bought it when I needed something to read on the train from D.C. to New York. I was pleasantly surprised by its readability and insights. The Way to Win is a well-thought out, timely, at times fascinating exposition of not just what it will take to win the presidency in 2008, but more broadly how the drastic changes to the way news is reported in this country will affect national politics in the future. The authors' analysis of this new media age, which they dub the "Freak Show," is probably the book's most useful contribution, even more so than their assortment of "trade secrets" to prospective presidential contenders.

The book begins by analyzing the Freak Show. They argue that we live in a new media age, one that has drastic implications for American politics. Focusing mostly on the success of 24-hour news channels (particularly Fox) and web "news outlets" like blogs and the Drudge Report, the authors believe that the way politics is reported and disseminated to the public is far different than it once was. Their pace now is much more frantic, and outlets -- both those new outlets just mentioned, as well as the "Old Media" like newspapers and NBC, CBS, and ABC -- are more likely to report the more salacious, and less substantive aspects of candidates. Candidates unable to appreciate this change, and subsequently adapt, have zero chance of making it through the 2008 campaign and into the White House. To prove their point, the authors take great pains to examine John Kerry's and Al Gore's painful presidential runs. They argue that Kerry and Gore both lost because they did not know how to operate in the Freak Show environment, and the authors use their campaigns to demonstrate exactly what not to do in a 2008 presidential campaign.

To contrast with the hapless Kerry and Gore campaigns, the authors look at the hugely successful Clinton (1992 and 1996) and Bush (2000 and 2004) campaigns. In impressive detail, they show the two very different ways that Clinton and Bush won the White House by navigating through the Freak Show.

The analysis of Clinton is not terribly ground-breaking. Halperin and Harris believe that Clinton's electoral success, and later his survival in the face of impeachment, were a result of his ability to carve out a centrist approach that plucked Republican ideas and used them to appeal to moderates. Clinton's use of Dick Morris's triangulation, while well known, is still quite compelling in the book because of the many anecdotes the authors provide. The authors argue convincingly that Clinton survived and ultimately thrived because he won the middle.

Unlike Clinton, Halperin and Harris argue, Bush and Karl Rove have conquered the Freak Show environment by the exact opposite approach: governing not as a moderate but as an arch-conservative. In the authors' view, Bush has been able to win twice because Rove has such an acute understanding of the modern media age, and as a result has been able to manipulate it to Bush's advantage. Further, Bush and Rove have survived by putting together a fervent conservative base that has stuck with the president at nearly every key turn. The authors readily acknowledge that many of the new media players such as Fox News and Drudge are generally slanted to the right, (not to mention that Bush has had a GOP Congress behind him), but note that this should not detract from President Bush's impressive successes.

The Way to Win concludes by suggesting that any prospective White House candidates can win by co-opting either Clinton's or Bush's very different but very successful models. They also stress that candidates who do not appreciate the new media age Freak Show are doomed to lose like John Kerry and Al Gore. The book notes that the Freak Show and its players -- like Matt Drudge -- may or may not have a positive influence on American politics; that is not their concern. They merely accept that that is the way it is, and The Way to Win is a guide on how to understand and tame the Freak Show.

The Way to Win is not flawless. While the authors' analysis is generally interesting and sharp, their constant harping on "trade secrets" gets a little annoying and detract from the book's sharp analysis. Some of these secrets -- such as the advice that prospective candidates should actually learn policy before they run -- are a bit useless. And perhaps it is just me, but I think the flow of the book does slow down a bit near the end as several sections just seem like laundry lists of trade secrets that don't seem as insightful as the authors make them out to be.

Both of the authors are big players in the Washington beltway -- Halperin puts together the Note, a well known daily political briefing read by people in the DC beltway, and Harris is the political editor at the Washington Post -- and it shows. The book definitely has a beltway elitist tinge (if they used the phrase "Gang of 500" one more time I think I was going to puke), which may be a put-off to some, but I doubt it. The Way to Win is written for political junkies by political junkies, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else. It is a great book for any political junkie. The authors are definitely striving to be relevant in the upcoming election, and I think they achieve that and then some. I suspect the book will be well read in political circles, and perhaps by several prospective candidates as well.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Starts Out Good, then slides downhill - 10 Oct 2006
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on
"The Way to Win" professes to provide campaign secrets from both the Clintons and Bushes (read Rove). In reality, it offers little in the way of secrets, though it starts off well by describing the reality of the New Media "Freak Show."

The New Media (talk shows, cable TV, Internet websites) does not have the editorial filters of the Old Media. At the same time, its major occupant - "Freak Show" politics' - goal (and some politicians as well) is not simply to win a point but to persuade voters (and donors, viewers, and readers) than an opponent lakcs the character and credibility to even deserve a place in the contest. Freak Show politics, per Halperin, defeated Gore and Kerry.

How does this happen? Candidates running for office principally on their biography (eg. Kerry) are acutely vulnerable to accusations that it was embellished - the Freak Show targets via a fixation on personality and alleged hypocrisy, and often without even providing clear authorship (rumors work quite well). Regardless, the attacks on Kerry were predictable, and he did not prepare. That is Lesson 1 of Freak Show politics. Lesson 2 covers being ready to comment on a number of other basic topics (eg. religion, current events, current movies). The New Media overwhelmingly favors conservatives - via Fox News, Matt Drudge.

Clinton Politics is the politics of the center, holding that most Americans are less interested in ideology than practical solutions to basic problems. People prefer that politics be polite and compromise-minded. Clinton's style is not to clarify differences but to blur them; its' great weapon is high approval ratings. The most important Clinton trade secret is "know your stuff" - aided by campaign staff with plausible prescriptions for the most serious questions of the day. Confidence is key - no flip-flopping (Dick Morris' advice to Clinton during the '96 campaign). Another Clinton strength is to run toward your weakness (talk to opponents) - to not do so allows them to define you, incorrectly. Being polite was another Clinton trade secret. (One of Gore's weaknesses was his reputation as an exaggerator.)

Bush Politics is the politics of the base. People are angry because the issues dividing them are real and consequential. The leader sharpens differences and rallies the most intense supporters. Winning by one vote is enough. Bush ran on his education record in Texas, his support for a "patient's bill of rights," and a new prescription drug benefit for Medicare, per Halperin. The problem is that his Texas education success was fraudulent, he actually opposed the Texas patient's bill of rights, and the Medicare drug benefit was more a drug company benefit than anything else.

Halperin dismisses Rove's reputation as a dirty trickster (some would argue that that is how Bush wins), ignores/fails to go into detail how Rove built a turnout machine or his enlisting the evangelicals, and instead speculates on trivial components of Rove's success - eg. cheap food for fat cat get-togethers, being part of a "nice" team, etc. We do learn, however, that Rove's campaign letters often focused on something an opponent had said and then repeat it over and over, that nearly all play off the basic us-versus-them mentality that motivates partisans, that he can handle all levels of politics (eg. both creating the grand strategy and writing/typing up suggested ad lines, worker handbooks --> fast and consistent results.

Halperin also reports that Bush has become vulnerable to poor results - Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Katrina, quality jobs, etc. True, but hardly an insight - what President isn't.

Bottom Line: About the first third of "The Way to Win" is interesting and useful; the remainder meanders around trying to draw major conclusions about what seem more likely to be incidentals - eg. emphasizing Rove's pursuit of new technology, while providing almost no useful insight into how he uses it.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars important but flawed 26 Oct 2006
By T. Tucker - Published on
I was very curious about this book, because John Harris runs the best political journalistic operation the business at the Washington Post and Mark Halperin runs the smartly written but nauseatingly cynical "The Note." Would it be full of the blunt but smart analyses I see in the Post or the snarky, generally pro-Republican stuff you see in The Note?

The answer is a mix. On the one hand, you have pages upon pages of sucking up to Drudge, Limbaugh, and the rest of the right-wing noise machine. On the other, you have real bombshells, like the admission that press crew who travelled with Gore (specifically, Kit Seelye and Ceci Connelly) may have cost Gore the 2000 presidency. In the end, I find this tremendously disappointing: two writers with amazing access and great political acumen for the most part waste their time pulling their punches about the press corps and how it operates.

That said, I would have given this a higher rating were it not for two factors: (1) the fact that neither will admit that their own news operations are to a certain extent responsible for the power of what they call the "Freak Show" and (2) the excessive worship of Clinton and Rove, neither of whom is the political genius they are made out to be here (in my opinion).

And there's one other thing: I find Mark Halperin to be a deeply troubling figure, both here (in the passages that are clearly his) and in The Note. Clearly intelligent, he seems motivated primarily by the desire to curry favor with the powerful. He, and people like him, are a large part of the reason why we now have political dynasties, such as the Bushes and Clintons, which we never had before in the history of this country

I think that if Harris -- whose other writing I admire greatly -- had written this with a different partner this might have been a great book. Instead, what it is at some level is a brilliant mistake.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Does not even mention Obama 22 July 2008
By J. Groom - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is okay, but these guys are not too brilliant in predicting the future, as they do not mention, a single time, some guy by the name of Barack Obama.
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