Inside the Circus: Politico E-Book Plumbs the Depths of Primary Backstabbing

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For the 2012 election, the journalists Mike Allen and Evan Thomas are attempting the neat trick of chronicling the history of the campaign as a real-time serial. Their second installment on the Republican race, “Inside the Circus,” is a dishy account that tries to enliven the campaign’s well-worn themes — Mitt Romney is rich, his rivals are feckless, and God, this has gone on too long… — by feeding political junkies morsels gleaned from special access. This is the book’s implied value proposition: for $2.99, the authors are supplying the candid clashes the daily papers (save Politico, Allen’s employer) are said to have missed.

“Inside the Circus” is packed with such anecdotes: Rick Perry whistling at a urinal, Jon Huntsman plunging into a “dark place” before debates, Donald Trump taking more credit than he’s due. Readers learn that Romney is fastidious about cleaning the ellipticals at the gym. Parts of two paragraphs are devoted to describing his meticulous process for making the peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches that are apparently a staple of his diet on the trail.

The real value of the book, however, is that it captures the zeitgeist of what has been, for Republicans, a horribly depressing campaign. A very conservative party is on the verge of nominating a relative moderate whom nobody is very excited about, largely because none of his rivals managed to cobble together a professional operation. (“Midgets of political strategy,” is one Obama operative’s assessment of Romney’s rivals.) Voter turnout is down. The GOP’s wise men are befuddled. The base is apoplectic, but ultimately powerless in the face of delegate math. And so there must be blame.

“Politics is a heartless business,” the authors write. This airy truism is laid bare in the book as “advisers,” “strategists” and “friends” twist the shiv in just about everyone. Each of the candidates gets battered by blind quotes. Gingrich is portrayed as a canny megalomaniac, Perry an intellectual lightweight, Huntsman a cipher who lacked the requisite passion to run. Santorum is cast as a jerk: “He’s not a guy you want to hang out with,” says one rival campaign manager. “Unlikable,” says another insider. Ron Paul receives perhaps the ultimate Washington insult: scarcely a mention.

As the campaign’s central figure, Romney is the subject of the crudest gossip and armchair psychoanalysis. “Inside the Circus” is jammed with hand-wringing about his “low likability factor” and his emotional remoteness. (Few people, by contrast, seem overly concerned about a policy agenda that one outside campaign adviser describes as “warmed-over oatmeal.”) To be sure, the authors find plenty of people willing to attest to Romney’s intelligence and decency. But they linger longer on his inability to forge connections with crowds, a struggle perfectly encapsulated by one “friend,” who notes in defense: “He’s not an evil rich guy that’s out to screw people and steal their stuff. You’re not going to go to the bar with him, but he’s not going to steal your keys when you’re at the bar, either.”

We should be thankful for such small things, apparently. The book casts campaigns as bubbles where anything worth doing is worth second-guessing, and everybody complains about everything. (Huntsman’s advisers complain that he didn’t complain enough.) The arch-villains in this coarsened culture are not the candidates but the consultants. Perry’s disastrous campaign was ravaged by a rift between his Texas advisers and his DC cadre, whom a Lone Star loyalist describes as “mercenaries who want to cash a check.” Huntsman, who according to the book nearly opted to run as an independent last fall, recalls being asked to hurl red meat and project anger to conservative town-hall crowds. “I’d never worked with consultants before,” he tells the authors. “Why? Because I hated political consultants. I think they’re ultimately the demise of good politics, the rise of the K Street class. I think they’ve dumbed it down.” His wife recalls thinking, “I’m not sure that some of these people even care if he wins.”

The consultants are eager to bottle up and micromanage the candidates. According to one Romney adviser, the scariest thing for a campaign is when the candidate rejects advice: “That’s when you see everybody’s sphincters tighten up.” Meanwhile, the consultants’ attitudes toward each other takes on a catty, high-school air. “Stuart [Stevens, Romney’s top strategist] is a good message guy. He’s not a real strategist. He’s a great guy at making pictures,” says a veteran rival. “I don’t mean to demean that at all. But to think he’s a strategist for this campaign is a little weird to most people in the business.” Even the consultants who care–the true believers–are tainted by the tinge of self-interest. “It could be argued that Romney’s senior staff believed in the candidate because they had to: their livelihoods and careers depended on him,” the authors write.

All this carping and suspicion is at the heart of “Inside the Circus.” Perhaps the insiders who vented were seeking catharsis, or perhaps trying to assign blame so it doesn’t fall on them. For their part, the authors mildly suggest the motivation may be money. “Consultants always say they believe in their candidates, and often they do,” they write, “but the hired guns, who see themselves as soldiers and swear as often, can be cynical and patronizing toward their clients, as well as manipulative and self-interested.” Then Allen and Thomas add: “They are generally protected by the political reporters to whom they leak.” These consultants’ self-interested criticisms, blind quotes and all, are now available on your e-reader for $2.99.