Monday, April 30, 2007

Experts and Electability

I'm going to take a moment to savor the fact that the Chicago Bulls just swept the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

I moved to Chicago about ten years ago, around the last time the Bulls won a playoff series, and it's nice to see the local team (well, the national and international group of highly paid mercenaries) make good. But I'm also enjoying the Bulls' win because it reminds me that in the 2008 presidential election I'm going to tune out whenever anybody starts talking about electability.

Why? Well, let me return you to the last game of the regular season, when Chicago was playing Cleveland in a game that went a long way to determining the seeding of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Moderately complicated seeding procedures not worth discussing here meant that if Chicago won, it would be the #2 seed and therefore play the Washington Wizards. If Chicago lost, it would be the #5 seed and play the Miami Heat. The Wizards had been a really good team before losing two of their best players to injury; the Heat had just gotten their best player back from injury. As the Chicago-Cleveland game grew nigh, sports pundit after sports pundit sat in his sleek and shining suit in TV studio after TV studio and agreed that both Cleveland and Chicago really needed to win the game because defending champion Miami would be just too tough to beat in the playoffs. They agreed that Chicago would be doing well to win two games in a best of seven series. They were very persuasive.

They were also very wrong.

There are a lot of genuine experts in the world. Highly trained people with deep knowledge and experience who deserve consultation. Very few of those people are on television.

Instead, American TV is a strange three-camera kingdom populated by bright-toothed people overpaid to appear to understand things better than the rest of us. Mostly, though, they're just as clueless as we are. Or more clueless--they live closer to the contagious idiocy that passes as insider wisdom, which tends to disable what little common sense they might otherwise have. I mean, most mutual funds don't manage to beat the market, but we're supposed to take stock advice from "experts" on MSNBC who couldn't even get a job working as the personal assistant to a deputy fund manager? It's like a girl-crazy teenage boy taking dating advice from a gay uncle who isn't successful with men.

And print media pundits aren't much better. They're just a more rumpled, which gives the illusion of seriousness.

So this year I'm not going to listen to talk about "electability," which is the political equivalent of "Chicago can't beat Miami." Remember electability? It gave us John Kerry in 2004. Pundits and pollsters said that Dean was too left-wing and Edwards was too inexperienced. But John Kerry was baby-bear porridge. Kerry had war medals, good hair, and a sonorously boring answer for every question. He had, they said, the sort of gravitas needed to challenge Bush. And so the pundits all eventually infected each other with electability and decided that American voters wanted electability. They were very persuasive. Too many of us believed them.


This time around, I think Democrats (and Republicans for that matter, though they've got a crummy crop of candidates this go-round) should worry way less about electability and way more about policy, competence, and vision. (Electability, really, is only a sort of composite score of those three qualities anyway; it has no independent existence except in the minds of fake experts.) And the distribution and depth of those traits will only become truly clear about a year from now, after debates and campaigning.

My expert tip is that we'll have a good sense about a candidate's electability once we know which candidate the most people like. Crazy, I know.

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