Political pundits are not in the business of admitting their ignorance. But in 1996, a surly electorate keeps upending the journalistic conventional wisdom. Columnists who claim advance knowledge of how voters will behave in far-off November are only one step removed from those hucksters who promise you can lose weight without giving up potato chips.
With that in mind, here are several cautionary notes about the grand spectacle unfolding in front of us in what could be the most volatile political year in recent memory:
*Don't write off Pat Buchanan as a "fringe" candidate.
Have you noticed how every time Buchanan wins a caucus or does better than expected in a poll, Jewish leaders offer the same thinly reassuring litany? "He can't win and he can't get the nomination," they soothe — which sounds increasingly like whistling past the dark cemetery.
While every GOP contender tries to portray himself as a conservative, anti-government outsider, there is only one candidate directly tapping the deep anger and fear gripping much of the electorate: Pat Buchanan.
Bob Dole and the other GOP contenders offer traditional Republican solutions to the nation's woes: cut regulation, reduce government, slash taxes and let business be business, the same formula that produced such wonderful results under Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.
Bill Clinton, increasingly, is trying to act like a traditional Republican, but with vestiges of the New Deal — a hybrid political theology that may miss the mark with stressed-out Amer-icans. Despite reassuring government economic statistics that seem to come straight out of Fantasyland, many have seen their jobs and economic futures downsized.
Buchanan is running against both government and big business, against the foreign corporations that are beating the pants off their American competitors.
Like the populists of old, his scapegoating of immigrants is tied to deep fears about foreigners taking away jobs in a time of economic uncertainty.
Buchanan's "cultural revolution" agenda is what garners the headlines, and it represents one important pillar of his support. But it's his old-fashioned economic populism that has enabled him to confound the political analysts at every turn.
When Steve Forbes flames out — which will happen when folks begin to realize that he's peddling a fairly ordinary Republican big-business theology — the conventional wisdom says that a GOP centrist like former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander will pick up the pieces.
But there's another possible scenario: Buchanan, who is running a smart, sophisticated campaign this time around, could pick up the portion of the Forbes constituency that flocked to the millionaire because they briefly saw Forbes as the genuine outsider.
Consider Pat a fringe player at your own risk.
And a corollary: Forget old labels like liberal and conservative, or even Republican and Democrat. Buchanan is so far to the right he's almost on the left; President Clinton, a "liberal," is more conservative than Richard Nixon on a host of issues. One of these days, the politicians will catch on to the fact that the public no longer responds reflexively to these terms.
But Buchanan knows.
*Don't forget Congress.
The presidential contest is great drama, but the most important action this year may be in House and Senate contests.
Once again, there are a record number ofopen seats; incumbents of both parties, frustrated by the increasing nastiness of what passes for political dialogue, are dropping out in droves.
Polls show that American voters blame the Republicans for the budget stalemate. But Democratic incumbents are unlikely to reap the rewards; once again, voters may turn to conservative, anti-government outsiders.
So November could see a movement toward candidates who are even further outside the political mainstream than the freshmen of the 104th Congress.
That could boost the effort to slash government programs in wholesale lots, including programs that serve many thousands of Jews. And it could accelerate the economic polarization of the nation, a prescription for social instability.
The arrival of so many new legislators who are interested only in their highly parochial domestic agendas will also pose a huge new challenge to pro-Israel lobbyists.
*Don't bet the house on President Clinton's re-election.
Today's political dogma is that the election is Clinton's to lose. The problem is, there are dozens of ways to lose it, as enraged voters bounce from one candidate to the next, one party to the other.
Democratic professionals are sounding much warier than the Clinton's strong poll numbers seem to warrant.
"Nobody I know thinks it's a sure thing," said one Democratic politico here who will be working on the re-election effort. "The electorate is in a terrible, very reactive mood; a lot of things undoubtedly will change between now and November. Loyalty to candidates runs very shallow."
Three possible developments cause Democratic strategists to reach for the tranquilizers: a dramatic breakdown in the economy, damaging new developments in the Whitewater investigations and military disaster in Bosnia. Any of those could turn the positive polling numbers upside down in a matter of days.
And while Clinton enjoys a comfortable advantage in the polls, his position is much more tenuous in the Electoral College; the solid Republican South means that the president can't afford to lose any of the big Northern swing states, like California and Illinois.
November is eight months away, an eternity in today's political environment, a fact that can turn today's conventional wisdom into tomorrow's embarrassing memories.