Like, well, a fourth of the U.S. adult/adolescent population, I participated in a NCAA tournament pool in my office, and like a lot of people, my brackets were completely busted on the first two days. Actually, I participated in a second pool in which four of us “drafted” teams, on a seed times round basis, and I’ve completely bombed in that one as well.I’ll get over it within the next few hours, but for the record, my fate is a good example of how stupid the Conventional Wisdom is in any sport, including politics.The principles that guided my picks included:1) Don’t be a homer. My beloved Georgia Bulldogs were not in the tournament, so I had to be wary of the temptation to irrationally favor the teams from my work-place home of Washington, D.C. I picked the three “Georges”–Georgetown, George Washington, and George Mason–to lose in the first round. All three won, and the Hoyas and Patriots actually advanced to the Sweet 16. I wish this result could be noted by the various people who email me now and then to accuse me of being a Washington Insider.2) Go for the hot young teams. Everybody’s Hot Young Teams were Kansas and North Carolina. The former lost in the first round; the latter in the second.3) Don’t pay attention to irrelevant traditions. Alabama has a great basketball tradition, but had a lousy, underachieving season. All the cool kids had them losing in the first round, while all the ignorant pickers chose them to beat Marquette, whose own tradition was too remote to be of interest to those ignorant pickers. Alabama won, of course. Same thing happened with Indiana and San Diego State and N.C. State and Cal: “smart guys” picked SDSU and Cal; dumb guys rightly picked IU and N.C. State.4) Pick judicious upsets: Most pools give bonuses for picking first-round upsets. Three years ago I was briefly in the running in my office poll for picking lots of those upsets. The last two years, I bombed by picking just as many upsets. This year was supposed to be another Year of the Upset, and it was, but I generally picked them wrong, going with San Diego State, Northern Iowa, Marquette, Seton Hall, UNCW, UAB, instead of Bradley, George Mason, Northwestern State, Montana or N.C. State.5) Focus on coaches’ tournament records: Tom Izzo has an incredible tournament record at Michigan State; I picked them to go to the Elite Eight, and the Spartans lost in the first round. Same scene with Kansas and North Carolina: their coaches never underachieve, except when they do, as in this year.The bottom line at this point is that people who filled out their brackets intuitively, or even ignorantly, are doing a lot better than us pseudo-sophisticates. Next year I’m probably going with the system of “whose mascot would win in a fight,” which at least presents some interesting metaphysical issues of how a Blue Devil would fare against a Bruin.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.