WASHINGTON -- Though Americans follow sports and politics with a keen interest to know who might win and who might lose, news coverage of the two differs markedly. A sports commentator makes a prediction intent on being accurate. A political commentator makes a prediction intent on being interesting -- or, at least, morally superior. Hence accurate predictions by political commentators are not as popular as wrong predictions. In fact, if a political journalist is reliably wrong for a long enough period of time, that journalist can assume the wings and halo of a Walter Cronkite.
This explains why today so many Washington commentators agree with the CBS headline writer whose Web site declared, "Gore Leads Bush In Only Vote That Counts," that being the vote in the electoral college. And most of the rest of the commentators drone on about how this presidential race is "too close to call" or "the closest race since 1960."
Today's consensus amongst the media sages puts me in mind of the 1980 presidential campaign. The sages and their polls were wrong then and for the very same reason that they are wrong today. They were befooled by the Unspoken Issue of 1980. That they created the Unspoken Issue makes their erroneous 1980 predictions all the more delicious.
In 1980, an amiable governor from a large state challenged President Jimmy Carter, genius, policy wonk and Democrat. The sages notified us that the governor lacked experience; and about his intellect they were in despair, though truth to tell intellect is not always highly valued by the sages and on occasion is deplored as "elitism." They predicted that Gov. Ronald Reagan would flounder in the presidential debates and be laughed back to Sacramento. When he did well in the debates, the sages denied it. When he campaigned effectively, they said the race was "too close to call."
Reagan won by 9.7 percent of the popular vote and an electoral landslide, 489-49. The reason was the Unspoken Issue of 1980. The issue that the press left unspoken was that Carter was a failed president. Twenty years later the press still has difficulty acknowledging that in domestic policy and in foreign policy, President Carter was a blank. Yet the American electorate recognized the failure and for weeks anyone who cared to study their reactions to the campaign knew they would be voting for the governor of California.
In Campaign 2000, another amiable chief executive from a large state is having his intellect and his experience questioned by the press and by the policy wonk in the White House, in this case the No. 2 policy wonk in the White House. Gov. George W. Bush was told he had to do well in debate, and he did. He was told the policy wonk's issues (education, health care, and Social Security) would weigh against him, and they did not. Bush has run a superb campaign, and he is going to win handsomely.
Neither intellect nor experience is what explains Bush's approaching victory. As in 1980 he is heading toward victory because of the Unspoken Issue. The Unspoken Issue of 2000 is public trust. If the Washington press corps had taken the elements that go into public trust -- character, honesty, respect for the law -- seriously, its sages would realize that this is not that close a race in the popular vote or in the electoral college. If the sages had not deluded themselves in a phony sophistication, they would have recognized that those polls showing the American electorate alarmed about Clinton's character made it especially important for Al Gore to show good character in the campaign.
When Gore engaged in numerous little lies about his personal achievements, he reminded Americans of the unease they have felt over Clinton's big lies about his personal flaws. When Gore bullied his opponents and was brazen enough to run on such issues as campaign finance reform, he reminded Americans of the Clinton administration's abuse of power and of his own deep involvement in campaign irregularities. No presidency in American history has raised so many questions about its ethics across such a broad range of behavior. It has focused the minds of the American people on an issue the sages never mention, public trust. A casual knowledge of American history would suggest it. A careful reading of the polls confirms it.
If the Bush vs. Gore event were a sports match, the sports commentators would be making accurate predictions. But the political commentators are making high-minded and interesting predictions. Of course, most of them are wrong. May I congratulate Bush on running a fine race.