Thursday, November 15, 2007

George Will's Racing Form (UPDATE With Link)

Today's column by George Will is the kind of thing that makes my eyes glaze over. Of course, most of the things George Will writes make my eyes glaze over, but this is particularly egregious because Will is offering the kind of pseudo-insightful horse-race nonsense that only makes sense to bookmakers in Las Vegas and political reporters who tire of (or aren't interested in) serious policy matters. Offering the kind of anecdotal evidence from history (Estes Kefauver's surprising primary wins in 1952, before primaries were the main vehicle for a party's nomination) that makes Will appear insightful to himself but is in fact irrelevant, the column reads like a racing form, with the various horses - Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, Romney - discussed without reference to whatever their various strengths and weaknesses might be.

Another analogy is the kind of deciphering necessary in a close contest at the end of a baseball season; the Red Sox might make the playoffs if they win three out of their last five games, but the Blue Jays could still be spoilers if they lose to the Yankees in the last series of the regular season and Baltimore beats Kansas City. It's fascinating for the baseball fan, but nearly indecipherable to anyone else. And the analogy comes up short because politics isn't about winning and losing, or at least it shouldn't be. Winning and losing should be about what the politician offers as reasons to support them (or, conversely, not to support an opponent). Just as, in a horse race, serious followers of The Sport of Kings consider every detail of the history of a horse - do they run well in drier conditions, or is the jockey a bit heavier than the horse is used to - as they consider where to place their bets, so, too we need to consider what the politicians are offering the public as reasons to support them. Being successful in a campaign can become a self-fulfilling prophecy (nothing succeeds like success), but there is scant mention of why Sen. Clinton continues to be the front-runner in the Democratic contest (although it is healthy sign that both Obama and Edwards are catching up in Iowa) or why Giuliani is skipping Iowa and New Hampshire (he will get beaten, badly in both contests).

I have seen Will attempt this kind of breakdown before, and he rarely gets it right. Even finding some kind of historical example usually fails because history is a poor guide in politics (like "the incumbent party always loses seats in an off-year election"; "Vice-Presidents always lost their bids to replace the Presidents they serve"). Politics is the ultimate example of contingency in action - things are never the same in politics precisely because the context (the economy, the social matrix, the cultural setting, significant events) is always shifting.

By the way, while it is probably as meaningless as Will's Kefauver anecdote, I think a better historical analogy, at least on the Republican side, would be the way the Republican Party bosses managed to steal the nomination from Sen. Taft of Ohio, who had a majority of delegates going in to the Republican convention in 1952 without having enough to actually win the nomination, and give it Eisenhower, who announced late (like Giuliani) and did poorly in the primaries (as it seems Giuliani, despite all the polls giving him a "national" lead, will do). Look for something like this should Mit Romney do well in the early primaries. Combined, of course, with the kind of nasty campaign ads and push-polling the Bush campaign used so effectively against John McCain in 2000, after McCain beat Bush in to the dirt in New Hampshire.

UPDATE: Although it pains me to do so, I must be fair to George Will, and point to this post at Talking Points Memo in which Josh Marshall does much the same kind of thing as did Will. Both are examples of the kind of nonsensical horse-race stupidity that is meaningless. In Marshall's case, I think the only response is that Huckabee won't win in Iowa. Period. Even if he comes in a close second, I do not believe he is as smart as Bill Clinton was in 1992 and turn a loss in to a victory. In any event, my money in the Republican Party, despite my fears that the Big Wigs may stack the deck in Rudy's favor, is on Romney going all the way. In many respects this would be a good thing - a Mormon, a northeasterner, a relative moderate in a party dominated by ideologues. Of course, it also means all the Romney baggage - opportunism, flip-flopping, etc. Be these things what they are, however, Marshall's bit is no better than Will's.

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