Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The dicey logic of defeat and victory

When my older son was about 10, we devised a simple dice baseball game (snake eyes a home run, 3 a single, 4 a strikeout, etc.) and kept tinkering with it until game results closely mirrored those of regular major league games - scores in a range of 1-0 to say 12-11.

One thing I learned from playing dozens or hundreds of such games is that the most thrilling dramas can come about as a result of pure chance. In one game, you might hold a 2-1 lead from the first inning on; in another, you might 'blow' a four run lead in the ninth. It struck me then that sports narratives always moralize a contest. A four-run lead disappears? Who choked? A one-run lead holds up through six rallies? What a gutsy battler the pitcher is! And to varying degrees, there's some validity in those judgments. But the equally variable and probably equally strong role of chance is simply discounted in our human drive to make sense of the event.

What's true of chance is also true of enduring, structural causes. One of the ironies of Obama's "bitter" commentary, as Paul Krugman pointed out, is that one simple fact almost completely explains Republican dominance over the past generation: Democrats' loss of the South in the wake of Johnson's successful championing of civil rights. The rest is noise. But just as we discount chance when explaining events, we also discount causes stronger than the individuals in their grip. Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry -- all are writ down emblems of Democratic weakness rather than victims of a stacked electoral deck. Every mistake looms large when you lose. Follies are forgotten when you win.

So with Obama in Pennsylvania. Al Giordiano, delegate doctor extraordinaire, wrote six weeks ago that Obama could not win the state -- that his task was to keep it close enough not to shake the delegate math or the phenomenology of [delegate] mind. The structural impediments, from Rendell-Nutter to demographics to the exclusion of independents -- were, Giordano insisted, insurmountable:
The press will try to make a race of it. There will surely be polls showing the race tightening, perhaps even suggesting that Obama could win it. But that’s just part of the predictable song-and-dance to sell newspapers and up ratings (and hit counts, for the political blogs and news sites that sell ads). The way the odd-numbered delegate districts break down, the demographics, the fact that it’s a closed primary (no Independent voters allowed), and its long border with the senator’s New York state make it a lead-pipe cinch for Clinton; to the extent that Obama supporters enter the “no, but yes, we can win it” narrative they’ll be walking into a trap.
But of course, the postgame show will now make a retroactive race of it - focusing on Bitter-ness, 37, the ABCeizure. And perhaps without a string of errors Obama could have done marginally better. But a string of errors (or losses) is also part of every long season. And the internal dynamic hasn't changed. Obama has not changed, nor has his campaign - they are a disciplined team that knows how to keep eyes on the prize. Obama once again remains, as Sullivan notes, calm in the face of all this Clinton drama.It's the rest of us who are panicking.

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