BOOKS

The books that peak under the Democrat’s tent

Several recent books show all we can and can’t know from Washington Books

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
5 min readFeb 28, 2024

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Photo by fer gomez on Unsplash

There’s so much to enjoy about the new book, The Truce: Progressives, Centrists, and the Future of the Democratic Party, by Hunter Walker and Luppe B. Luppen. At exactly right time, they’ve peaked under the Democrat’s big circus tent and seen it all.

The book’s insights are largely possible because of the access the authors gained to key players in the party, including those who’ve had a central office in recent White Houses. To be sure, getting anyone from this group to talk on the record is a major feat. Walker and Luppen accomplish this with impressive regularity and we learn so much from that.

Never is that more the case than with Jen Psaki, who they quote from on-the-record throughout. Psaki knows the ins and outs of this party, having come back to serve it time after time over the last two decades. She helped get Obama elected in 2008, stayed on as deputy press secretary after the inauguration, and did the same in 2012, before returning as spokesperson at the State Department.

But it’s 2020 that Psaki dishes on in such great detail in this book. Psaki served as the chief spokesperson for the Biden-Harris transition team before joining the White House in the same role.

Psaki’s revealed bits-and-pieces from this time before, including how she got the transition job on the Smartless podcast last summer before she joined MSNBC as an evening host.

In The Truce, she shares a lot more.

One of the most interesting things Psaki explains to Walker and Luppen is the big difference Joe Biden made to who agreed to staff the transition and then join the White House. According to Psaki, it mattered a lot that it was Joe Biden, not some other Democrat.

“If Hillary Clinton had won…we maybe wouldn’t have gotten involved again, because it was time for another group of people to do it,” she says. The “we” here is left undefined, but it reasons that Psaki was referring to the group of Obama White House alums who were most influential on the 2020 transition team. So much attention was paid during that campaign to the party divide between the progressive Sanders-Warren wing of the party and the centrist Biden-Harris wing of the party. Psaki reminds us just how fragile that Obama-Clinton detente was after the 2008 election.

When I interviewed people — most far down the organizational chart from Psaki — they told me similar things. One said “I previously served in the Obama-Biden White House,” and that joining the transition team felt like being a “part of a family that I loved.” Someone else said “it had only been four years since there had been an Obama administration, and we all knew each other pretty well, and it was mostly the same cast of characters involved.” As much as party loyalty, this was a deeper connection and commitment to a political family of sorts.

Some of the most interesting comments from Psaki relate, however, to what transpired after the 2020 election and before the inauguration. Reporting at the time suggested considerable obstruction from the Trump White House after the election, including the failure of the GSA to certify the election and then reluctance of Trump appointees to help the incoming team get ready.

“Trump was clear before the election and certainly right after the election, that he was going to challenge the outcomes, and they wouldn’t operate as a normal transition,” Psaki explains to Walker and Luppen. This meant: “Even pre-January 6th, they weren’t sharing information.”

Psaki’s account also aligns with what Franklin Foer reported in his 2023 book on Biden’s first two years in the White House.

Based on interviews for my book due out this spring on the same time period, many people on that transition team said something similar, but not everyone. As I’ve written before, the interactions from 2020 varied a great deal and some were quite normal.

People said career civil servants were “highly cooperative” and they “exceeded my expectations.” Someone else said the careerists “organized quickly” and had a “no time to waste attitude.” Another person said the careerists were “very professional” and a final person said one careerists “did exactly what he was asked to do.”

In this way, much like Foer’s book, The Truce demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of this type of high-level access. True insiders, like Psaki for Walker and Luppen and Jeff Zients for Foer, are the only ones who can provide specific insights into a complex process like operating the White House or leading a transition.

However, for such complex institutions, those insiders can only observe just so much.

In 2020, for example, the Biden-Harris transition had over a thousand people involved in getting ready for the inauguration. Very few got to meet the President-elect or could tell you very much about what he was thinking about his White House plans. Nonetheless, they also were the ones holding hundreds of meetings with Trump officials, many of which were mundane and routine. Some people told me remarkable stories of obstruction, especially in critically important areas like intelligence and defense, but that wasn’t always the case.

This also raises a central point Carlos Lozada made last week in the New York Times about “Washington Books” and how to read them (Lozada has his own The Washington Book out this week). The ones written by insiders, whether they are elected officials or high-placed staffers, are often dismissed as vapid and self-promoting. Reading them closer sometimes reveals the unexpected, sometimes even the transcendent.

Lozada writes: “no matter how carefully politicians sanitize their experiences and records, no matter how diligently they present themselves in the most electable or confirmable light, they always end up revealing themselves.”

In a similar way, insider accounts by journalists, like Walker and Luppen’s, reveal many insights about the machinations of government and party politics, including some they do not intend. They place you into the small room where the important choices are made.

Talking to outsiders — a different genre of Washington book altogether — has the potential to reveal sometime else about the big machine of government. It’s often a revealing story, but doesn’t always get the headlines.

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits