06/30/2010 09:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The mysticism of Peggy Noonan

Jonathan Chait had a great post a couple of weeks ago that's worth revisiting because of what it tells us about how pundits reason about politics.

As Chait noted, political scientists have established that presidential election outcomes are largely a function of the state of the economy, particularly in an election year (the same principle applies to presidential approval). And yet pundits routinely invent elaborate narratives to "explain" these outcomes in terms of strategy, tactics, personality, etc.

One case in point is the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, who blunders into this issue in a revealing passage from a recent column:

The president is starting to look snakebit. He's starting to look unlucky, like Jimmy Carter. It wasn't Mr. Carter's fault that the American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran, but he handled it badly, and suffered. He defied the rule of the King in "Pippin," the Broadway show of Carter's era, who spoke of "the rule that every general knows by heart, that it's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart." Mr. Carter's opposite was Bill Clinton, on whom fortune smiled with eight years of relative peace and a worldwide economic boom. What misfortune Mr. Clinton experienced he mostly created himself. History didn't impose it.

But Mr. Obama is starting to look unlucky, and-file this under Mysteries of Leadership-that is dangerous for him because Americans get nervous when they have a snakebit president. They want presidents on whom the sun shines.

But as Chait points out, there's nothing mysterious about it:

Toward the end of the first paragraph, Noonan wanders toward the basic reality of the situation -- people liked Clinton because the economy was booming -- before returning to the familiar embrace of mysticism (Americans get "nervous" when the president appears "snakebit.") Rather than seeing this as demonstrating a basic correlation, she calls this the "Mysteries of Leadership."

The same principle applies to Obama. It has nothing to do with being "snakebit"; he is presiding over a weak economy, a context which magnifies all of his political difficulties.

It turns out that Noonan has made similar claims before. Here, for example, is a June 2009 column in which she briefly acknowledges that the state of the economy may be hurting Obama but then argues that his real problem is the lack of what she calls "The Sentence":

Something seems off with our young president. He appears jarred. Difficult history has come over the transom. He seemed defensive and peevish with the press in his Tuesday news conference, and later with Charlie Gibson on health care, when he got nailed by a neurologist who suggested the elites who support a national program seem not to mind rationing for other people but very much mind if for themselves.

All this followed the president's first bad numbers. From Politico, on Tuesday: "Eroding confidence in President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and ability to control spending have caused his approval ratings to wilt to their lowest level since taking office, according to a spate of recent polls." Independents and some Republicans who once viewed him sympathetically are "becoming skeptical."

You can say this is due to a lot of things, and it probably is, most especially the economy, which all the polls mentioned. But I think at bottom his problems come down to this: The Sentence. And the rough sense people have that he's not seeing to it.

The Sentence comes from a story Clare Boothe Luce told about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She told him, she said, that "a great man is one sentence." His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don't have to hear his name to know who's being talked about. "He preserved the union and freed the slaves," or, "He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War."

But again, this is silliness. If the economy was strong, public perceptions about "The Sentence" wouldn't be a political problem. What was Bill Clinton's "Sentence" in his second term? (Indeed, Noonan has argued that Reagan "knew, going in, the sentence he wanted, and he got it" and yet his approval ratings still declined substantially when the economy was bad in 1982.)

The underlying problem is that Noonan and other pundits have strong professional incentives to construct these ad hoc explanations, which emphasize their own expertise in narrative construction and dramatize politics for public consumption. Until more pundits recognize the potential advantages of incorporating political science into their work, mysticism and superstition will continue to dominate.

Update 7/1 9:22 AM: See this post for more.

[Cross-posted to]