In Sports as in Politics, It's the Unforced Errors That Kill

05/14/2015 04:49 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

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While still undeclared in the 2016 race, New Jersey governor Chris Christie might insist that Bridgegate was never his doing. But it's surely still his problem and it's hurt his once excellent chances to run for president.

Likewise, Hilary Clinton contends that her emailing practices are in-bounds and old news. But in her young campaign she is still wrestling its implication of self-interest -- an unwelcome proof point of her divisive brand.

These are neither the work of gotcha journalists nor rival politicos.  They are what in sports we call unforced errors.

For the freshest example of political self-immolation, look no further than Jeb Bush.  While having declared, "I'm my own man," the former Florida governor seemed on fire, almost literally, when asked this week by conservative broadcasters if he, like his brother, would have gone to war in 2002.

FOX News' Megyn Kelly: "Knowing what you know now, would you have authorized the invasion (of Iraq)?"  

"I would have," chirped Jeb. "And so would have Hillary Clinton... (a deft Red Herring)."  His statement drew shock and awe of the incredulous sort.  Did he really just say that?

Later with Sean Hannity, Bush explained, "I interpreted the question wrong, I guess. I was talking about given what people knew then, would you have done it, rather than knowing what we know now. And knowing what we know now, you know, clearly there were mistakes."

That's three knows, two knowings, one knew, and two nows.

While he acknowledged that mistakes were made he seemed to brag that on the matter of Iraq invasions there is little "daylight" between he and his brother.  Next came more shock, awe and incredulity that Jeb is far closer to George than anyone figured.

The result was red meat for GOP rivals, Democrats and comedians, many suggesting that Bush is no more independent or intelligent than W.

As in tennis, politics is often more about returning serve than serving aces.  It is a game that rewards consistency and endurance. It is a forum where a confused constituency can be unforgiving and where reparations mean substantial distractions and deviations from the game plan.

In the cases of Christie and Clinton, each has hit into their own nets. The prices they are paying is to pause or pass more then they might like.  And, when they do emerge, they are forced onto the defense, running weak recast to flip a narrative or deflects to divert detractors.

Others are performing better and focusing where focus groups say they should. Marco Rubio, without a gaffe to date, is talking foreign policy.  Bernie Sanders is preaching the pain of income inequality. Ted Cruz is free to rail. So is Bobby Jindal, if anyone will listen. They're all relatively clean so offense is possible and momentum can build.

Not so for Scott Walker, who is still treading lightly in the wake of his muffs on evolution.  He might otherwise be taunting a new target like, oh say, another union.  Martin O'Malley is likewise hamstrung. His get-tough policies as a former Baltimore mayor are coming home to roost.  And while Carly Fiorina has run Crazy Ivans on her boardroom brawls, she too is tied up in storylines that do more to draw questions than build credentials.

Playing defense, particularly in a crowded field, is slow death in electoral politics.  The craftiest candidates flip infamy to fame, sometimes on instinct.  Think of Ted Cruz when his world-on-fire proclamation made a little girl fret. He pivoted instantly to salvage his brimstone rhetoric. Christie and Clinton have this talent too, but most are mortal and doomed to the tarpits of single digit polling.