Sports metaphors get used a lot in politics, but there are some key differences between the two endeavors. The biggest is that in sports they keep score.
For example, you’ll never hear a football coach explain after his team is outscored by seven touchdowns that they really won the game, but this fact isn’t being reported by the liberal media.
Nor does it work too well to hold a “Mission Accomplished” celebration three minutes into a contest, and then claim after getting routed that the game plan was excellent, but there were some flaws in the team’s execution.
In sports there’s a scoreboard, which means that, with rare exceptions, there’s true accountability. Thus when Isiah Thomas transforms the New York Knicks into a collection of wildly overpaid misfits, and produces a team featuring both one of the highest payrolls and worst records in the NBA, it’s considered a deep and abiding mystery that he still keeps his job.
Similarly, when Matt Millen achieves the feat of retaining his position as general manager of the Detroit Lions for seven seasons, even though the Lions have had an average record of 4-12 over that span, this is treated by fans and the media alike as freakishly inexplicable.
But what’s freakishly inexplicable in the sports world is completely ordinary in the political universe. Consider an Orwellian event held in Washington last week, when Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollock of the Brookings Institution debated the future of Iraq.
As usual, this debate represented the entire range of acceptable foreign-policy positions among Very Serious People, from Kagan’s view that we should stay in Iraq forever, to O’Hanlon’s view that we should stay in Iraq forever, but in a very nuanced and thoughtful way.
The highlight of the proceedings was provided by Kagan’s opening statement, which began with these words: “The first thing I want to say is that the civil war in Iraq is over. And until the American domestic political debate catches up with that fact, we are going to have a very hard time discussing Iraq on the basis of reality.”
Within hours after Kagan had graced the audience with his insights regarding the nature of Iraqi reality, fierce battles engulfed the country’s two largest cities, as various Shiite militias fought for control of neighborhoods throughout Basra and Baghdad.
This kind of thing is par for the course for Kagan, as well as for his brother Robert and his father Donald and his wife Kimberly. The Kagans all have full-time jobs analyzing Iraq for the benefit of the American public, and, in analytic terms, they’re currently on the equivalent of a 73-game losing streak.
The Kagans are always wrong about everything.
But does the fact the Kagans are always wrong about everything, often in ways so spectacularly ludicrous that it would be funny if not for all the dead people, have any negative effect on their careers?
No, it does not. This is politics and therefore there’s no scoreboard — or rather, in politics the score is kept by the players themselves, who change the rules as often as necessary to ensure the right team maintains the lead.
Thus Fred Kagan, who continues to be wrong about everything, is spending this year as a David Rubenstein Distinguished Visitor at the American Academy in Berlin, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.
Thus Michael O’Hanlon continues to publish exquisitely nuanced and thoughtful and serious pieces in the national press about how everyone should still pay very close attention to O’Hanlon’s views regarding Iraq, although he, too, continues to be wrong about everything.
After they’re fired, maybe Thomas and Millen should get jobs with Washington think tanks.
(Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at paul.campos(at)colorado.edu.)