January 15, 2008 in Opinion

In politics, the unexpected reigns

James P. Pinkerton Newsday
 

“Nobody knows anything.” Those words are from screenwriter William Goldman, summing up the wisdom of Hollywood. But in the wake of Tuesday’s New Hampshire presidential primary results, Goldman’s words apply equally well to politics.

Goldman knew plenty about Hollywood, of course. He won two Oscars, one for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the other for “All the President’s Men.” But still, you might recollect every bomb of a movie ever made, every dud of a TV show and then think: “The people behind that project were smart, they did their homework, they were eager to make money – and yet, they still failed totally.”

So how does that happen? Answer: Nobody knows anything.

And so to politics. Back in 2004, the national exit polls, surfacing late in the afternoon on Election Day, all showed Sen. John Kerry winning. Oops.

And so to the latest bunch of “never mind” moments. The headline in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal was typical: “Clinton Braces for Second Loss.”

Blogger Rich Galen set the scene later on the same day: “As the afternoon progressed it became ever more clear to big-time reporters … that Sen. Barack Obama would cruise to an easy win over (Sen. Hillary) Clinton, and the real story would be whether (Sen. John) McCain would be able to continue with a loss – even a close loss – to Mitt Romney.” And this pseudo-wisdom was again bolstered by the exit polls, which showed Obama up by five – although the polls did, in fact, correctly call the Republican race.

Late Tuesday night, in the wake of Clinton’s New Hampshire bounceback, Tim Russert summed it up: “The pundits, the candidates, the candidates’ staffs – totally stunned.” To which Brian Williams quipped, “Talk about Dewey beats Truman,” referring to the famously incorrect headline atop the Chicago Tribune back in 1948.

On Fox News, Dick Morris, a leading Clinton critic, was moved to observe, “I have never seen a comeback like this in my entire political life.”

That’s the thing about politics: Expect the unexpected. Back in 1940 at the Republican convention, Wendell Willkie was the darkest of dark horses; having registered as a Republican only two years earlier, he had never run for elective office. Yet, after endless chants of “We Want Willkie!” shaking the rafters of the Philadelphia convention center, Willkie secured the nomination on the sixth ballot.

Now back to New Hampshire. In 1984 Sen. Gary Hart won the Democratic primary, setting off an Obama-esque tidal wave of emotion; the media rhapsodized about a return to the romantic days of Camelot and the Kennedys. Such giddy yak lasted for a few weeks – until Hart’s bubble burst.

And 12 years previously, in the New Hampshire primary of 1972, Sen. Edmund Muskie got a little teary-eyed on the eve of balloting; this eye-moistening was declared a huge gaffe, and his candidacy was derailed.

Similarly in 2008 New Hampshire, Clinton displayed an emotional moment the day before the voting – and was judged, at least by Muskie-minded pundits, to be showing yet another sign of her doomed candidacy.

So much for expertise.

Now the pundits will endlessly chew on her comeback. Was that real emotion or was it a crocodile-tears contrivance? Is her victory a further sign of the “Oprah-fication” of American politics? Much William Goldmanesque speculation will follow.

So what happened on Tuesday? Here’s a theory: Over the past year the Iowa caucuses have eclipsed the New Hampshire primary in terms of money and attention. And so if New Hampshire had simply ratified the Iowa results, the Granite State would have seemed like just a rubber stamp for the Hawkeye State. That would have finished off New Hampshire.

But instead, by choosing Clinton and McCain, New Hampshireites are saying, “You have to pay attention to us!” And so we do.

That’s my explanation. Of course, I could be wrong.

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