Commentary: Political sages don't always know much
Political sages turn today's polling and past voter behavior into confident predictions about upcoming elections. That's their job. But fortune-tellers may do nearly as well, especially when the vote takes place months in the future.
Public sentiment can shift on a dime, and in any case, isn't always properly measured. You know the saying about data and computers: "Garbage in, garbage out." Even Madam Marie knew that.
Nonetheless, thick were the prophecies last month that Democrats would have their clock cleaned over health care reform. Then the legislation passed, the public started warming to the idea, and the seers ran back to their calculators to revise downward the Democrats' impending losses come November.
This would be a harmless exercise if people didn't take it seriously. But they do. Predictions of voter revolts can become self-fulfilling. They make soft-spined politicians lose their nerve and act against their consciences. They cause good people to withdraw from races in competitive districts.
Junk-laden data almost brought down health care reform. The American people disliked the bill, the polls kept telling us. But you didn't have to be Nostradamus to recognize that the respondents were giving their opinions based on propaganda, outright lies and, in many cases, displeasure that reforms didn't go far enough.
Back in February, respected pundit Charlie Cook warned Democrats away from the legislation. "Would they really help themselves by enacting something that most voters say they don't like and don't want?" he asked in the National Journal. The month before, Cook declared the Democrats' efforts on health care reform "a colossal miscalculation."
Leave aside the quaint notion that some politicians may choose to do what's right for the country and worry about helping themselves later. Here was a "something" that voters obviously didn't understand in the fog of political war -- but that they certainly would once the dust settled.
I enjoy Charlie Cook and respect the man's nonpartisanship. His interpretation of numbers may provide a useful snapshot of public feelings at the moment. But as a basis for all but calling an election 10 months away, it does not serve the civic culture.
And it may be very wrong. "A year and a half before the 2006 election, Cook wrote that "it would take a tidal wave higher than '94's for Republicans to lose control of both houses of Congress," and "no one" predicts that. As it happened, everyone was wrong. Republicans lost the majority in both the House and the Senate.
One group that did understand the dynamics of the health care legislation -- that it would prove more popular once passed -- was the Republican leadership. That's why in the hours before the House vote, House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued hysterical warnings directly to Blue Dog Democrats, who tend to represent conservative districts: They would lose, lose, lose in November if they sided with the bill, said Boehner and McConnell. You don't think Republicans were trying to help them keep their seats, do you?
The immediate reaction to the bill's success bore out Republican fears. A USA Today/Gallup poll showed 49 percent of adults suddenly calling passage a "good thing" and only 40 percent deeming it a "bad thing." One expects that support to solidify in the months to come.
And to think that Democrats almost blew their chance to start fixing the health care mess over some polls that measured little more than the public's confusion.
As fate would have it, a fortune cookie recently provided the wisest advice to political prognosticators. "The smart thing is to prepare for the unexpected," the fortune said. The next one should read, "Modesty is a great virtue."
Froma Harrop's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.