The Year of Unconventional Wisdom

Unsurprisingly, political experts were wrong a lot in 2014.

People who make a living predicting the political future had a rough 2014.

Voters had a way of not always following the script—otherwise known as "conventional wisdom"—set out by those whose columns, microphones, talk shows, and TV appearances give them the prominence to proclaim what quickly is accepted as the way it is.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the year gone by is that conventional wisdom—always subject to change—now does so more rapidly than ever. What is accepted conventional wisdom in January can look laughable in December. And that may be the biggest challenge for those who track the CW—trying to keep up. That was proved right from the start in 2014, a year that began with much of Washington still clinging to the belief that voters were in the mood to punish Republicans for shutting down government. That had been the prevailing wisdom after the 16-day battle between President Obama and the Republican House in late 2013. When it ended in acrimony that Oct. 16, the polls left no doubt that the voters thought poorly of the GOP architects of the shutdown.

But that held for only 11 days, until the first crash of the Obamacare website. And 2014 dawned with the president still struggling to explain why he had promised people they could keep their insurance if they liked it.

That was the changed environment when the new year began. But it led to dueling CW's, with Democrats clinging to the belief that voters would remember the shutdown and Republicans believing they would instead be thinking of their unhappiness with Obamacare when they voted. As was often the case in 2014, the Republican CW was closer to the truth. Democrats got trapped, failing to understand how quick political reality is to shift.

To believe that the impact of the shutdown would be strong more than a year later "you would have to believe that politics is static and that events are not overtaken by subsequent events or fade over time," said Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report. "It also assumes that one thing can be isolated and that nothing else matters."

Few people in Washington have seen more conventional wisdom come and go in Washington than Stephen H. Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower White House and now is a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "Conventional wisdom is always right until it is wrong," he said. "Then we either start again or write 'on the other hand'."

There have always been opinion leaders in Washington. But nobody called it conventional wisdom until 1958, when economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term in his book, The Affluent Society. According to Safire's Political Dictionary by William Safire—whose New York Times column would itself help set conventional wisdom for years before his 2009 death—"the hallmark of the conventional wisdom is acceptability. It has the approval of those to whom it is addressed."

In the days when columnists like Walter Lippmann and James Reston reigned, it was clearer who was setting the CW. In a fractured media environment, it is much less clear. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh contends that David Gergen, who worked for several presidents of both parties, used to set the CW. "Whatever he said, whatever he thought, you could count on that being what everybody else in the power clique thought and believed," Limbaugh said on his show in October. "He was the arbiter, and may still be for many, of political correctness and conventional wisdom."

But Limbaugh suggested "it may be that that torch is being passed." He nominated Bloomberg columnists and TV hosts John Heilemann and Mark Halperin as the new arbiters. Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic earlier this year referred to "Ron Fournier and his ilk," suggesting the National Journal writer is helping set the CW. Others have pointed to print journalists, including Politico's Mike Allen, National Journal's Ron Brownstein, and The Washington Post's Dan Balz. With more immediate impact and the larger platform afforded by television, there are Chuck Todd of NBC, Jake Tapper of CNN, and Brett Baier of Fox.

For all of them, 2014 was a particularly challenging year. Those who stuck with history and said throughout that it would be a disastrous year for Democrats were correct. Those who thought the low approval ratings of Congress would hurt Republicans were wrong. So were those who thought the improving economy would help Obama rebound in popularity, those who thought women's issues could rescue Democratic candidates, and those who believed it was Republican pollsters whose results were skewed or that a superior Democratic ground game would alter the basic dynamics. This, again, was an example of the dangers of not adjusting CW—in 2012 it was true that the Republican polls and Republican ground game were inferior. That wasn't true in 2014.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the fluidity more than the easy reelection victories in 2014 of Democratic Sens. Al Franken in Minnesota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Six years earlier, Merkley won with only 48.9 percent of the vote and Franken, with 41.99 percent, wasn't declared the winner until six months after Election Day and after a lengthy recount battle that left him the winner by only 312 votes. Everybody in Washington just knew that both would face tough sledding in 2014.

But things changed. When the votes were tallied in 2014, both had won easy reelections. Merkley, at 55.8 percent, had the second-highest vote percentage of any Democrat running. Franken, at 53.2 percent, had the fourth-highest total—higher than Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, something no CW practitioner ever envisioned. The CW was too focused on what was supposed to be Mark Warner's cakewalk to easy reelection. But the CW was wrong on Warner. He eked out the narrowest of all wins, getting only 49.2 percent of the vote in Virginia.

CW didn't even handle election night well. Even as the Republican wave was moving across the country, inundating one Democratic candidate after another and giving the GOP unexpected victories, commentators on CNN were declaring it an "anti-incumbent" night. They were undeterred by the fact that Republican incumbents seemed generally immune to this voter anger.

In victory, Republicans were not much better, though. As the victors almost always do, they tried to set a conventional wisdom of a large mandate—more specifically an anti-Obamacare mandate. That hasn't quite taken hold, though, since the exit polls showed it was more an anti-Obama verdict than anti-Obamacare. Plus, the most effective Republican attack throughout the campaign was branding incumbent Democrats as voting with the president 97 or 98 percent of the time.

Moving into the new year, James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, warns that CW may be more flawed and more fleeting. "Conventional wisdom has become more a function of an Internet marketplace than actual analytical insight," he told National Journal.

Stephen Hess adds another warning: Beware of the coming conventional wisdom on Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy. Just about everybody in Washington in 2007 believed that Clinton would sweep aside all challengers in 2008 and coast to the Democratic presidential nomination. Everybody was wrong. She lost the nomination to the upstart Obama. Now the purveyors of CW are at it again. "I think Hillary is going to drive the conventional-wisdom people up the wall," Hess said.