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.
Seemingly, this book is aimed at one reader: Hillary Clinton. But if you want to read the book as well, I'm sure they authors won't mind.
I was astonished that the book missed taking a more serious look at some perpetual problems of presidential elections: How can a senator ever beat a governor? How does a candidate with good fall election potential break out of the party's pack in the early maneuvering? How do you deal with the potential of third party candidates siphoning off your voters? How do you seal off a swing state from being accessible to your opponent? What new technologies will be critical in 2008 that weren't important before (presumably podcasts and cell phones)?
I like concept behind the book's title, however. I hope someone with a broader sense of the issues involved in winning and governing will write a better book on the subject that's more forward looking than this one.