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Jewish World Review Nov. 8, 2000 / 10 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Now we know: The perils of prophesying

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- I LEARNED long ago not to assume anything about horse races, jury trials and presidential elections. But it's still great sport to read others' predictions, especially the morning after the horses have crossed the finish line.

Indeed, few things make more delicious reading than predictions of events now past. For there is no better critic of newspaper prose than the passage of time. (''Dewey Beats Truman,'' Chicago Tribune, Nov. 3, 1948.)

The more sweeping the forecast, the better. Which is why my favorite prognostication this year appeared in a column by the Little Rock's own Gene Lyons in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (''Why Bush will never be president,'' Sept. 20, 2000.)

To quote our man on the clintonesque left: "Call in the hounds and put out the fire, George W. Bush will never be president. The double-talking Texan will win most (but not all) of the old Confederate States of America. He'll earn the electoral votes of almost every state populated by more cows than people. Otherwise, he's in what his daddy once called 'deep doo-doo.' GOP partisans had best enjoy the Olympics and the baseball playoffs. The presidential race looks all but over.''

Alas, in subsequent columns, the race began to look less over to my stablemate. I prefer my predictions absolutely certain.

Connoisseurs of the cocksure could still fall back on the words of Will Saletan in Slate: "Yes, in principle, Bush could win. The stock market could crash. Gore could be caught shagging an intern. Bush could electrify the country with the greatest performance in the history of presidential debates. But barring such a grossly unlikely event, there is no reason to think Bush will recover.''

But certitude was scarcely limited to the Gorish. Turning from left to right, columnist Charles Krauthammer let readers in on the precise results of this year's Presidentiad, as Walt Whitman called these quadrennial seizures of the body politic.

According to Dr. Krauthammer's crystal ball, George W. Bush would get 50 percent of the popular vote to Al Gore's 47 percent, and Ralph Nader would wind up with only 2 percent. Result: President W. would be elected by 10 electoral votes, 274-264.

Some columnists' Ouija boards seem to come with slide rules and adding machines attached.

Academic types who actually use computer models had agreed at the outset of this campaign that Al Gore was a sure thing. Feeding various factors into their formulas -- how people feel abut their own finances, how they feel about the economy, how they feel about the current president -- a half dozen professors assured the country that that Al Gore would win with 53 to 60 percent of the popular vote.

Alan Miller of the San Diego Union-Tribune was equally but oppositely sure: "It may be hard for many people to believe,'' he wrote, "but Texas Gov. George W. Bush is about to become president of the United States. ... Just as GW confounded the conventional wisdom six years ago, defeating popular Gov. Ann Richards, he has baffled the Beltway pundits by outmaneuvering a sitting vice president and consummate politician who, all things being equal, should have been a shoo-in.''

Back in June, the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, who can be found opposite the Journal's editorial page in more ways than one, was bullish on Al Gore. He explained why in stock market terms:

"Warren Buffett has a simple formula for making his billions: buy stocks that are undervalued but that have a competitive advantage. Applying that formula to politicians means it may be a good time to buy some Albert Gore.''

But Paul Gigot, who appears on the Journal's editorial page, was already figuring out who would blame whom if Al Gore didn't do as well as Al Hunt thought he would:

"If Al Gore loses ... one battle line of Democratic recrimination is already clear. Mr. Gore will blame Bill Clinton, the president will blame Mr. Gore, and they'll both be right. This is the amazing box canyon the vice president has ridden into, despite 3.9 percent unemployment and a rookie opponent he thinks is an amiable dunce. Everyone in politics has known since impeachment that Mr. Gore's campaign task was to separate himself from Mr. Clinton's unpopularity as a person, while associating himself with his popular New Democrat policies. Mr. Gore has managed to do the opposite.''

As Election Day approached and the polls showed a steady lead for George W. Bush, the Gore camp was counting on the electoral vote to pull their man through. Never before have Democratic spinners shown such reverence for the Electoral College. The party of the people was finding new virtue in a system devised by 18th century aristocrats to temper popular passions -- and without a trace of irony. You would think the Democrats had nominated not Al Gore this year but Alexander Hamilton. There was no longer any talk about the manifest unfairness of the electoral system and the need to switch to a popular vote for president.

Instead, the vice president's supporters were beginning to look with equanimity, even enthusiasm, on the prospect of their candidate's losing the popular vote but eking out a win in the electoral column. In an historic first, The New York Times could scarcely contain its enthusiasm for states' rights, or conceal its contempt for mere numbers. Dismissing polls that claimed to reflect popular opinion (''The polls are deceptive at this point ... .'') The Times preferred to count by states:

"Mr. Bush has maintained a one- to four-point lead nationwide for several weeks by pumping his margins in Texas and other states that are safely in his pocket. But the state-by-state outlook and the electoral-vote arithmetic are much better for Mr. Gore. ... The Republican nominee wants to gull the country into thinking this election is over by taking a premature victory lap. Whether Mr. Bush's hubris is real or feigned, no one should be fooled by it.''

This isn't the first time The Times has counted its electoral votes before they were quite hatched. In 1948, its core of expert correspondents agreed that President Dewey would win with 345 electoral votes.

By dawn's early light this morning after, Gentle Reader can now decide which of these prophecies proved remarkably prescient -- and which just remarkable. Predicting the outcome of a presidential election is scarcely a dependable science, and if it's an art, it's a low one, but it remains a grand sport. Not to say spectacle.

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