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Did Anyone Really Believe We Would Never Find Saddam Hussein?

Apparently the conventional wisdom is that the capture of Saddam Hussein all but sews up Bush's reelection (The Democrats: Candidates Celebrate First and Worry Second)

Without getting into all the nitty-gritty about public attitudes about the war, whether the resistance will or will not subside, or the rhythms of political reaction to events, it seems to me a basic logical point is missing here: In order for an event to significantly alter one's prediction of the outcome of an election 11 months away, the event has to be one that is unexpected. Or, at least, there would have to have been a reasonably good chance that it would not happen. In other words, to assert that Bush's reelection is now very likely, whereas before the capture you thought he might have been vulnerable, implies that when you believed he was vulnerable, you must have been assuming that Saddam would remain elusive for another year.

Yet that was not a plausible assumption. The U.S. was going to catch or kill Saddam Hussein. Unlike the area of Pakistan or Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden (or, "Osama bin Forgotten," as Senator Graham called him) is presumed to be hiding, the U.S. controls every inch of Iraqi territory, and there is no country or nearby planet self-destructive enough to let Saddam in. And apparently the brilliant plastic surgeons and molecular biologists that you see on Alias, who for a million dollars could have transformed Saddam into Jennifer Garner's roommate weren't able to get past the U.S. checkpoints.

So there's drama and I suppose some relief in his capture, but not really new information that should change anyone's prediction about the course of politics over the next year. Predictions are not just a straight line from the present. Anyone making predictions has to have taken into account events that are likely to occur. The same goes for jumps in gross domestic product and declines in the unemployment rate. They will happen, and Bush is no less vulnerable after they happen than before.

While we're at it, here's a couple more likely events: Ronald Reagan will die, and there will be a week of mourning. (In which I'll join a little, because he was a whole lot better president than this one.) And Dick Cheney will be moved off the ticket in favor of maybe Senator Frist. I'm discounting those events already.

And one more thing about the press coverage of this event: Doesn't it seem at this point that CNN should not use the word "defiant" in describing Saddam's insistence that he had no weapons of mass destruction?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 16, 2003 | Permalink


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"Predictions are not just a straight line from the present. Anyone making predictions has to have taken into account events that are likely to occur."

Surely you're right about this, but the argument seems a bit too formal. We might be confident that X will happen, but as long as we're talking about politics, how and when X happens matter quite a bit. Finding Saddam alone and disoriented in a hole strikes me as just about perfect for the administration, and much better than asserting that the DNA from some bit of ash left over from a bomb strike belonged to him. X happened, but politically, it sure looks like X+2. On the other hand, finding him so long before the election seems politically unfortunate. However one chooses to weight the variables, they do have weights that can't be calculated until the even occurs.

(This isn't to defend the view that Bush is now more likely to be elected. I think it's far too early for that kind of talk.)

Posted by: ogged | Dec 17, 2003 2:20:21 AM

Well, it certainly seemed possible that Saddam might elude capture indefinitly. Our people-intelligence in Iraq is extremely poor, and Saddam had a reputation as a survivor.

Then again, he is still alive, eh?

The capture story is informative: Saddam's reign was a fragile thing. He was never going to be able to waltz back in and restore his dictatorship.

Posted by: Joey Giraud | Dec 21, 2003 9:48:06 AM

Actually, polling suggests the best move Bush could make is to have Cheney step down for health reasons in midsummer, and appoint Colin Powell as VP.

The GOP Senate would rubberstamp it. Powell would remain for the Fall campaign, and despite the white supremacists in rock solid red states, he'd lose no states for doing this. As liberal as I am, that's the scenario I fear as the unbeatable team that the Dems couldn't touch.

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