A few cracks in my crystal ball
By Dana Milbank,
Pundits say the darndest things on television.
Take, for example, the genius who said in January that “the president has a fairly easy” reelection ahead of him. Or the guy who said in June that Newt Gingrich was “finished, whether he knows he is or not.”
How about the talking head who said in July that House Speaker John Boehner had suffered a “mortal wound” at the hands of fellow Republicans? Or the one who predicted in August that Rick Perry would “hold his own” in the presidential debates?
One can only pity the commentator who pronounced Michele Bachmann “formidable” in August, just before her campaign withered, or the one who forecast a months-long “donnybrook” between Mitt Romney and the now-irrelevant Perry.
The pundit in each of these cases was, alas, the poor schnook whose byline appears above this column.
The luxury of being a prognosticator is never having to say you were wrong. Journalism is so disposable that, if you make your predictions with sufficiently long time horizons, people will almost always forget what you said by the time it can be proven false.
This year, though, I decided to hold myself to account by going through every transcript of my TV appearances, and several recordings, to score my forecasts. It is not an exercise I’d recommend for pundits with fragile self-esteem (if there is such an animal), but the results might be a useful guide for viewers wondering whether that talking head on the tube is full of it.
I should mention that my newspaper columns tended not to produce so many wayward predictions; my editors save me from embarrassment. I should also reassure the producers who book me for their shows that, for all my goofs, my batting average is probably better than most.
I argued in January, for instance, that Sarah Palin should no longer be regarded as a major political figure, and I predicted in early May that Herman Cain could well become the front-runner. I argued in August that the debt supercommittee was bound to fail and asserted in September that Ron Paul, now vying for an upset win in Iowa, had managed to exert outsize influence in the race. In August, I predicted that voters would regard Perry as “goofy,” and, a month before his “oops” moment, I described him as “on his way to being just another Rick Santorum.”
If there’s a pattern to my hits and misses — other than dumb luck — it’s the distinction between making predictions based on specific events and recognizing broad trends.
When commenting on a particular event, there’s a danger of exaggerating the significance. When Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour decided not to join the presidential race, I deduced that Barbour “is really saying that nobody can beat Obama.” In retrospect, it would seem that Barbour was saying only that he wasn’t running.
Trying to predict the daily back-and-forth of politics is like trying to make sense of gyrations in the stock market. Within a few weeks this summer, for example, I went from hailing Bachmann’s staying power to predicting that it’s “probably curtains for her.”
What a political journalist can do with some reliability, however, is discern underlying patterns. In covering George W. Bush’s first term in the White House, I found him fairly easy to predict: He would, invariably, stake out a position of maximum satisfaction to his conservative base. Similarly, handicapping Congress has been simple: You won’t lose money betting on failure.
In the presidential race, my predictions are based on a historical assumption: Republican voters, as I’ve argued regularly, tend to explore all other possibilities before settling on the most obvious one. This has been true for George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain. If the pattern holds, Mitt Romney will be the nominee in the end. That assumption is behind my oft-stated prediction that, despite the late surge by Gingrich, Republican voters will come to their senses.
Probably the most useful bit of TV commentary I did in 2011 was to remind viewers how little I know. The Republican presidential contest in Iowa, for example, has been dominated by volatility. I’ve noted many times that the people who will determine the outcome there are a few thousand Tea Party faithful and evangelical Christians — so small a sample that anything could happen. That’s why we’ve had a half-dozen different front-runners there.
The caucuses are now less than a week away, and I still don’t have a clue. If people on TV are telling you otherwise, they’re making it up.
Happy New Year: Not a prediction, just a wish.