William Safire is one of the most respected political prognosticators in the business, a fact that never seemed less true than when he was asked on Meet the Press about Hillary Clinton's potential running mate.
What about Rahm Emanuel, the most powerful voice in the House of Representatives that agrees with Hillary Clinton on foreign affairs? He's a hawk. And although he's a rootin' tootin' liberal on domestic affairs, he is a hawk on foreign affairs. I was at a roast for him for Epilepsy Association, and Hillary Clinton was there, and I said, quite frankly, here you have the hawkish side of the Democratic Party. If they get together, the bumper sticker will read "Invade and bomb with Hillary and Rahm."
The stolen Appalachian slang, the name-dropping from an event that transpired two years ago, the boy-in-the-bubble disconnect from political reality: exquisite stuff. But, again, Safire is a writer who's supposed to be good at this. Later this month, when he publishes his 34th annual "Office Pool" in the pages of the New York Times, people will parse his lines and report out his predictions, to see if they could come true. Even the risible Clinton/Emanuel prediction inspired credulous commentary from writers who surmised that, well, Safire wouldn't just say anything. He's got sources. He knows people.
Washington is full of such people, and for them 2007 was a lousy year. It's not that pundits and politicians are usually so prescient. As Philip Tetlock demonstrated in Expert Political Judgment, his 2005 survey of punditry, the pros, on average, are no better at predicting the future than a Denny's night manager or a part-time blogger or Miss Cleo. Rarely, though, do so many prognostications believed by the whole of the Beltway fall apart. Most everyone believed that Hillary Clinton would end the year as the Democratic frontrunner, which is still mostly true.
Not much more of the conventional wisdom of 2007 bore out. There was a moment when Washington was truly ready to accept Fred Thompson as the GOP frontrunner, as the natural candidate who could unite the party with charisma on loan from Cary Grant. All he needed to do was not flop. And then he flopped. (This was one of the few prognostications I didn't buy into. I was shocked at Fred's smug and fumbling campaign persona, a cacophony of "uhhhs" and "we've got some problems," and really thought he'd fail. For this I was raked over the coals at Free Republic. And how has Fred done? He's fallen asleep on the coals.)
There is no one explanation for 2007's odd turns, although there are some explanations for the glut of bad predictions. They are abundance and access. There have never been so many pundits or so many armchair experts with means to make their opinions public. Since they want to distinguish themselves, they rush faster than ever before to be the first with tomorrow's conventional wisdom. There is no historical comparison for the effect of blogs bouncing a meme back and forth, hardening it, investing smart people in the success or failure of an idea like "Barack Obama needs to attack Hillary Clinton head-on" or "Tom Tancredo can win Iowa."
That's one effect of abundance and access. The other is happening outside the opinion market and in the political market, as active campaigners swell in number and find ways to use those numbers to shape campaigns. Twenty years ago a prediction like "There aren't enough libertarians to make Ron Paul a credible candidate" would have been right. Today Ron Paul supporters can organize ad hoc fundraisers and PR stunts and basically run a shadow campaign whose effect dwarfs the efforts of the official campaign. Twenty years ago you could get angry citizens to tie up Senate phone lines, but the power of today's cross-media assaults on Congress—via blogs, phone calls, talk radio, email—probably killed immigration reform after House and Senate majorities were ready to pass it and the White House was ready to sign it.
The following, roughly chronological, list of six botched predictions isn't intended to name and shame the people who got 2007 wrong. It's more interesting to call them back and see why they didn't pan out.
1.) The Iraq Study Group will change our policy. One year ago Time magazine gave its cover to a heavily-reported piece by Michael Duffy, the gist of which was that the White House wanted to get out of Iraq in the quickest, most face-saving manner possible.
Bush aides said last week that there is already agreement on the name for the restart: A New Way Forward, which borrows from the commission's own title, The Way Forward-New Approach. Among people who have known Bush for decades, there is almost as much certainty that he needs to disengage from Iraq as there are doubts about whether he has the wiring and instincts—much less the desire-to pull it off.
Not everything in there is wrong. The White House did whisper the phrase "new way forward" to reporters and Tony Snow pushed it onto Larry King. But by "forward" they really meant "forward"—more troops, a new general, a new PR push for the less-evocatively-named "surge."
To be fair it wasn't only Time editors who got this wrong. From Newsweek to the American Conservative, most beltway observers figured the 2006 election rout meant that George W. Bush was going to run bawling into the arms of his father's advisors and admit that he'd never been cut out for his job. It was a strange misstep; Washington had known for six years that the president was stubborn-running-to-messianic and that Democrats were skittish about actually ending the war. The GOP scored a rare 2005 victory when it forced a vote on whether to leave Iraq immediately, and the Democrats rejected Rep. John Murtha when he ran for majority leader as the hero of the anti-war faction. There was never much political will to start leaving Iraq, so there was no second day story after Baker and Hamilton's big coming out party. The result: a truly historic flop.
2.) The Democrats will overreach and George W. Bush will mount a comeback. At one point pundits believed both of these contradictory things: that the war would grind on and grow ever bloodier, and that George W. Bush would somehow bounce back in the polls. Chuck Todd of NBC News (formerly of The Hotline) got very specific, claiming that a Nancy Pelosi speakership would drive Bush's approval numbers above 50 percent by July 4. The Washington Post's David Broder vagued it up, predicting that Bush was "poised for a political comeback" after winning his early votes on the war.
Three things happened: The public grew less pessimistic about the war, the Democrats grew less and less popular, and...Bush stayed in the doldrums. Too many people assumed that political popularity was a binary, one-or-the-other proposition. It took an unusually long time for it to sink in that this was one of those times—not too rare—when the public had turned bitter and faithless toward all of Washington. The Bush comeback narrative relied on outdated faith in the president's power to persuade. It was one that didn't take into account new abilities to pick and choose the media that you pay attention to.
3.) Al Gore will run for president. In retrospect, hundreds of years later, you can almost understand Tulipmania. But the Al Gore boomlets of 2007 are completely inscrutable. Try to follow the logic of February and March: If Al Gore won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (keeping in mind that Davis Guggenheim, not Gore, would actually accept the prize) he would probably run for president. Why? Just because.