The Year That Wasn't
2007 defied conventional political wisdom.
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.
"Honestly, this was the inaugural parade we all envisioned," said Donna Brazile, his former campaign manager. "Gore's political stock is hot right now. I don't know if I would cash in now with so many players still on stage."
It went on like this all year, ramping up when Gore released his mildly deranged book on politics and when he won the Nobel Prize. The book, if anyone cared to read it, compared the media's gullibility to the ease with which chickens can be hypnotized.
4.) Sam Brownback will matter. Long before he declared for president, the political press corps were eyeing Kansas's born-again Catholic fundamentalist like a scout who'd heard some high school senior was the next LeBron James. In January of 2006, Jeff Sharlet reported in Rolling Stone that "the nation's leading evangelicals" had "lined up" behind Brownback and "as the candidate of the Christian right, he may well be in a position to determine who does, and what they include in their platform."
It never happened and for two reasons: Brownback was Brownback and Mike Huckabee was Mike Huckabee. Brownback fit into a comfortable media mold, filled out previously by pols like Rick Santorum: the holy roller who weaves together Christianity and right-wing public policy and chills secularists down to the base of their spines. Huckabee had (and has) no such long-term plans. He's interested in what works and what's good for Mike Huckabee, not necessarily in that order, and he's a lazy fundraiser. But Brownback had no personality, and Huckabee could sell bottled water to Amy Winehouse. Republicans proved more interested in an evangelical candidate they liked than an evangelical candidate with ideas.
And Brownback's anti-momentum has transitive properties. On November 7, Brownback endorsed John McCain: Noam Scheiber of The New Republic called it "a boost" that would give McCain an Iowa organization and speed the flow of white evangelicals who "have been moving toward McCain lately at a surprisingly strong clip." Then came the Huckaboom. Over the last month McCain's Iowa polling strength has dipped from around 8 percent to around 6 percent.
5.) John McCain is the GOP frontrunner and the natural heir to Bush. Fittingly, the story of the McCain campaign can be told in two glossy magazines—Esquire and GQ—that have perfected the art of the journalistic man-crush. In late 2006, Esquire gave McCain a glowing cover story, headlined "One of Us," casting his final run for the GOP run as a hero's quest and all the human impediments like smartass young voters or religious GOP leaders as patches in the Slough of Despond.
That's why John McCain would like to tell you a story—and why he would like for you to listen to it—his story of countrymen and friendship, of reconciliation with David Ifshin and with Vietnam, the country that saw to it that he would never again be able to comb his own hair, and he would like to tell you that all wounds can heal, that all memories can be made good, and that every state can be New Hampshire, in the middle of summer, enjoying an ice-cream social with Senator John McCain. And because of who he is—or perhaps because he is saying exactly what you need to hear—you're inclined to believe him and to believe that he's correct.
The whole article was basically like that.
Everybody's working theory was that McCain would hire as many Bush bagmen and kiss however many religious right rings as he needed to in order to win the nomination, but that this would be OK, because he was the same guns-a-blazin' maverick that the press corps fell in love with seven years ago. Cue: implosion. The story of McCain's fall was finally told by Robert Draper in GQ, and it turned out that McCain's smart hires and organizing had the twin effects of burning through his campaign funds and turning the media against him.
6.) Ron Paul's run will be bad for libertarians. No one, literally no one, has been shocked at the success of Ron Paul's presidential bid like Ron Paul himself. Looking out at rallies of 5,000 people, watching $4.3 million in donations pile up in one day, being told that a blimp bearing his name will be hovering over Washington, Paul often looks as if expecting someone to point out the hidden camera and live studio audience.
In April, Cato's David Boaz looked upon Paul's fundraising numbers and despaired:
Apparently, the most notable contributor to Ron Paul is… Rob Kampia, director of the Marijuana Policy Project. It's going to be a long campaign.
One month later came the Republican debate in South Carolina when Paul was confronted by Rudy Giuliani and heckled by a pro-war crowd. Byron York of National Review pronounced Paul "out—way out." Republicans talked about banning him from future debates.
The candidate who made a big move, who came out of nowhere to win new name recognition was…Ron Paul. But it's probably not the sort of name recognition Republican presidential candidates want. "Wow," said one adviser to a rival campaign after listening to Paul's blame-America lecture. "I haven't heard anything like that this side of Rosie O'Donnell."
And on and on. Libertarians, tempted to root for Paul, worried that Paul's meager campaign and rock-bottom polls would make it seem, again, like the philosophy was unpopular. That joined the worry that Paul's controversial writings (attributed to him, at least) on race would blow up and tar every libertarian by association. None of this has happened. As Paul's vast coalition of political outcasts organized online and filled his war chest, the mainstream media has grown more interested in libertarianism—all of it, not just Paul's brand—and has generally ignored his controversies.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.