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Gwen’s Take: Unconventional Wisdom

I am frequently wrong. Now there’s an admission you won’t hear that often from someone who makes a living in Washington.

But this most recent round of primary results reminded me of all of the times I have assumed outcomes and wound up on the wrong end of a prediction. There are sitting members of Congress who still give me the hairy eyeball when we meet because I underestimated them once. This is the real reason I am not a pundit. I hate being wrong, and am so good at it.

I make this confession to say I get conventional wisdom. It’s really tempting to reach for an easy, overarching answer, and doing just that becomes a cottage industry whenever voters head to the polls.

But my rear view mirror is shiny clean. So, as we sift through the week’s primary results, allow me to explode three of this week’s biggest CW myths.

2010 is the year of the woman.

And so was 1984 (Geraldine Ferraro) and 1992 (with the election of five female U.S. Senators) and 2008 (the rise and near-nomination of Hillary Clinton.)

Now the label has been hauled out again, this time as an easy way to label the electoral successes of South Carolina GOP Senate nominee Nikki Haley, California GOP Senate and gubernatorial nominees Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, and the resurgence of incumbent Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln. (Conventional wisdom, by the way, deemed Lincoln toast long before Election Day arrived. But I promised only four examples.)

The truth is, none of these women made gender-based appeals, and each won for reasons that had more to do with regional politics than anything else.

Whitman and Fiorina are each immensely wealthy candidates who made their mark in the business world. They both campaigned for John McCain in 2008 and became national party darlings almost immediately – their fortunes rising in direct proportion to California’s Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s slide.

But Whitman’s enormous campaign discipline was on display even on her raucous election night party, where she appeared to be reading even her most spontaneous victory remarks from a script.

Fiorina, by contrast, launched her general election with a gaffe – making a crack into a live microphone and camera – about her competitor Sen. Barbara Boxer’s hair. Not policy. Hair. But there you have it. I digress.

Conventional wisdom has polluted our political analysis in at least one other major way this year.

The tea party movement

…is in reality a hydra-headed and potentially influential collection of activists. What it is not, is a political party.

We don’t seem to know what to do with that, so we are on a constant hunt for the tea party’s “leaders.” One week it is deemed to be former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Another week it is Kentucky Senate nominee Rand “we want our country back” Paul.

Any conservative who defeats an incumbent instantly inherits the mantle, but they are not always prepared for what that requires – mostly the ability to withstand sudden, white hot scrutiny. When Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate nomination in Nevada this week, it’s been reported her campaign was so overwhelmed that they shut down the website – except for fundraising purposes – and temporarily routed even friendly calls of congratulation to voice mail.

Anger is good.

At the White House, we’ve seen another piece of wacky wisdom taking hold. Somewhere in the collective media consciousness, we have decided that President Obama does not mean what he says unless he gets mad. Visibly mad. Spitting mad.

So as hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil continue to spew daily into the Gulf of Mexico, it has come to this. NBC’s Matt Lauer asked the President of the United States if he wanted to kick some BP butt. The president ratcheted things up. No, he said, he wanted to know “whose ass to kick” first. I am being indelicate here only to be accurate. Those are the president’s words, not mine.

(I had not previously covered anyone, however, who wanted to conduct research before committing mayhem, but perhaps that’s the change Obama was talking about.)

The point is that somewhere along the way, a president famous for his composed nature felt he had to buy into the conventional wisdom that anger and passion equals competence. Last I checked, though, the oil is still gushing, and no one – not even the angry people – has figured out how to make it stop.

Perhaps the president’s anger will do the trick. Perhaps the tea party will coalesce around a single leader and a single set of principles. Perhaps 2010 will be the year of the woman, whatever that means.

I find all that unlikely. But hey, it’s OK to be wrong. Surely there is fresh, easy wisdom yet to be minted.

This entry is cross-posted on the Washington Week website. Tune in on Friday as Gwen and her panel discuss the politics of the Gulf oil spill and what Tuesday’s election results could mean for November.

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