Politics, where losers can be the winners

February 08, 2000|By DENIS HORGAN

I HAD IT all wrong. I believed that the team of baseball kids I help coach in the summer lost about half our games.

If I were a registered political observer, the record would be 12-0. Come up 11 runs short in a 13-2 game?

That would be a stunning victory through political eyes.

Who won the Republican caucuses in Iowa? George W. Bush, you think? Don't make me laugh. Mr. Bush merely got a lot more votes than anyone else. The winner, we learned after the event, was Steve Forbes, who got a lot fewer votes than the Texas governor. Actually, the true winner, we were advised, was Alan Keyes, who got a lot fewer votes than even Mr. Forbes.

Who won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire? Al Gore? Of course not. He only got a ton more votes than Bill Bradley. The vice president is clearly a goner.

I had hoped Mr. Bradley would win among the Granite Heads. When I saw him a substantial 5 percent behind Mr. Gore I was disappointed. But I was told that he was actually the winner because he made a late surge, created a lot of interest and made it more exciting than many had thought.

Yes, I see.

No, I do not see.

If I have this right, the Tennessee Titans obviously won the Super Bowl because, although a TD short, they made a great run at the end, captured everyone's attention and made it much more interesting. Only the persnickety, unimaginative literalists would believe that the St. Louis Rams won just because they got more points than their foes.

The wiseguys had already illuminated me that Mr. Forbes and Mr. Keyes were the laurel wearers after Iowa. According to the pundits, Mr. Forbes got more votes than they expected him to get, so therefore he was the victor despite having to watch Mr. Bush's parade ahead through a telescope.

Mr. Keyes, getting half as many votes as Mr. Forbes, was also hailed as the winner (in politics you can have as many as you want) because he got 15 percent, which is laughably small but more than those who got 5 percent. The murky logic granted him bragging rights -- and never mind that 15 percent and third place is light smoke in a heavy wind.

(1986: Red Sox beat New York, winning three games to the Mets' four. Sox made the Mets weary by making them run around the bases.)

Mr. Bradley, who had been comfortably ahead in the polls in New Hampshire, lost his lead and he lost at the ballot boxes, but is called a winner because he has slowed Mr. Gore's momentum. Or something. The talk shows, dripping venom, trot out Republican political operatives and Republican senators and Republican governors to solemnly explain that Mr. Gore is a 24-karat loser unable to get anything except substantially more votes than the other guy.

In the Napolean-Wins-at-Waterloo school of analysis, we don't hear that Mr. Bradley's support wasn't enough to carry the day, that he had seen it evaporate to second-place-out-of-two status. We hear that it is he who has the momentum and, besides, Iowa and New Hampshire are just preliminaries and don't count anyway.

This from the same gang that has told us for six months how Iowa and New Hampshire are the most critical battlegrounds in the galaxy, exquisitely testing a candidate's ability to work the caucus system and the retail politics of New Hampshire. Mr. Bradley accomplished neither. Now that doesn't count anymore.

(Saddam declares victory: "They used up a lot more bullets than we did," dictator boasts.)

The Big Mo Theory has it that a candidate (Mr. Forbes or Mr. Bradley or Mr. Keyes) gets a running start subjecting his over-confident opponent to a "rope-a-dope" strategy, most often citing Eugene McCarthy's driving President Lyndon Johnson out of the race with a strong loss in New Hampshire. What is less often cited is that McCarthy was never heard of again.

Someone's not losing as badly as it appeared he was losing a few weeks ago is transformed under the alchemist's magic into a grand victory of perception over fact. Occasionally, if rarely, perception becomes reality down the road; people survive early defeats to go on to larger victory. Usually, though, it is the front-runner righting himself after a setback . More seldom do we see it the other way around (as Bill Bradley hopes, declaring a skunk to be a mink.)

(Horgan team sweeps season, never placing worse than second in any game.)

Denis Horgan is a Hartford Courant columnist.

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