Kick in the Crystal Balls

These days, even pundits won't make predictions.

This is the year of uncertainty in Washington. Of course, there's usually a certain degree of ambiguity here, and even when there isn't the horserace-style coverage of the beltway media pretends there is. But this year is actually different; the internal uncertainties of an evenly split Capitol Hill, with its unpredictable voting alliances (remember the one-vote margin in the trade bill?), is matched by an unpredictable economy and an unpredictable war.

That poses a serious dilemma: Foresight is the name of the game in politics, and without it no one is sure how to proceed. On Thursday, a trio of consummate capital insiders revealed the perilous nature of prognostication at a think-tank forum in downtown D.C.: They refused to predict the future. This was no dereliction of duty, however. The country would be better off if the politicians admitted that they don't know what's going to happen next either.

Thursday's forum took place at the local office of the Hudson Institute, a prominent think tank based in Indianapolis. Participants who were supposed to discuss "2002: The Political Landscape," included Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report; William Kristol of The Weekly Standard; and Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and advisor. Instead of predicting the future with a nod toward their own particular agendas -- a traditional pundit pastime -- all three admitted that the political sands were shifting too rapidly for an accurate take.

"Whatever I say today will likely be wrong tomorrow," Mellman said in his presentation, noting that he had been scheduled to deliver a bit of political analysis to some Capitol Hill clients on the morning of September 11. That presentation was woefully obsolete by the time he reached the Capitol. Barone said that while the political terrain was certainly changed by the terrorist attacks and the lumbering threat of recession, it was impossible to tell how the new war and government's unfolding stimulus efforts might affect voters in the November election. When pressed, he guessed that there is a "50-50" chance that Republicans will take control of the Senate. Kristol was equally vague about the political outlook for November, arguing bravely that, "A lot of that depends on what happens over the next eight to 10 months."

Everyone agreed that congressional redistricting, close calls in recent elections, and a host of other factors make predictions even more difficult. In short, they couldn't predict how the war or the economy would look tomorrow, and even if they did it was unclear how it would affect the elections.

Contrast this humble wait-and-see approach with the attitude prevailing among elected officials. Theirs is often a complex gamble, weighing their sense of legislative cause-and-effect against the actions they think the populace will accept. In fact, the problem with Washington is not only that it thinks it can foresee the future; the problem is that it thinks it can shape the future.

Before the attacks, legislators eagerly took action based on their attempts at economic soothe-saying. This summer, Republican scored their biggest success--the tax cuts--by offering predictions on where the economy was going and the best way to fix it. Democrats, on the other hand, were sure that the cuts would doom every federal program from Medicare and schools to Social Security. Both parties gambled that the measure would score them points in the 2002 election.

This confidence in the power to shape the future has been even more apparent in the economic stimulus battle. Soon after September 11, House Republicans knew exactly where the economy was going -- and how to fix it. They decided the economy was going to need more investment, which they wanted to provide by accelerating the summer's tax cuts and bestowing billions in tax credits upon a few lucky corporations. A few months later, with the economic outlook just as cloudy as before, they changed their tune a bit. This time, they promised economic salvation through more limited tax cuts -- and a few of the spending initiatives floated by Senate Democrats.

For their part, Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and friends have been equally confident in their own predictions. They just know that the economic outlook will still be ugly when the people thrown out of work by the terrorist attacks and the nagging recession run out of unemployment benefits. Moreover, they know that cutting checks for these folks will be just what the economy needs. They even know exactly what effect this spending would have on the economy: At a December 7 press conference headed by Daschle and Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.V.), they said each dollar given to struggling families would boost the economy to the tune of $2.15.

But not everyone is so sure, as evidenced by the restrained pundits this Thursday. The elections will probably depend on the interlocking unpredictability of the war and the economy. Capturing Osama bin Laden could have a tremendously positive impact on consumer confidence. Another terrorist attack could sap investment. If the economy booms, people might give the credit to Bush -- or they might heap praise on Daschle. Which way will it go? Barone, Kristol and Mellman don't know -- and they admit it. With billions of dollars and many lives on the line, elected officials should be at least as cautious.

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