Political journalists love three things: conflict, a dramatic storyline and something — anything — to help the dog days of August pass a little faster. Thus we have the quick rise to prominence of Cindy Sheehan, an angry wartime mom who has been a prickly thorn in President Bush’s side during his stay at his ranch in Texas these past few weeks.

But journalists also love two other things — framing issues as an endless, mind-numbing political game of one-upsmanship, and speculating about how possible developments will affect each player’s standing in the next inning of said game. The AP’s Ron Fournier weighs in with what comes close to a perfect parody of the genre today:

Fournier’s story begins by noting that Sheehan’s small vigil “has grown into a nationwide protest,” giving a face to the misery of war and concerns about the president’s strategy in Iraq. Fair enough. But then Fournier veers off into the conditional and future tenses, the What could happen? of it all.

“It’s still not clear whether Cindy Sheehan’s effort was the start of a lasting anti-war movement or a fleeting summertime story fueled by media-savvy liberal interest groups,” he writes. Republican leaders “fear that protests will strike a chord” with the large number of Americans on the fence about the war, and “the president’s falling poll numbers … could drop further, threatening his military plans in Iraq, his agenda at home and Republican political prospects in the 2006 congressional and gubernatorial elections.”

Whew! Sounds like the president is facing the inning from hell. But wait! Fournier continues:

But will that happen? Will one woman’s demand to meet the president outside his vacation home be viewed someday as a tipping point against the war?

“It’s really hard to tell whether this will be a blip on the radar screen or whether it reflects a deep change in public opinion,” said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. “A lot will depend to what extent Sheehan and her vigil link up with the disquiet we’re seeing in public polls …”

It also depends on factors outside the control of Bush, Sheehan and their supporters. A reduction in violence in Iraq or a legitimate, new constitution for the government would help Bush. More bloodshed and no political progress in Iraq would probably give momentum to Sheehan and her supporters.

That’s not unlike a sportscaster saying, “If the Yankees get lots of runs in the next inning, they’re in good shape. But if the Devil Rays shut them out, plus add their own grand slam home run, then the game is theirs.”

Well, yes. Du-uh!

Which is to say it’s not that what Fournier writes is factually incorrect — rather, it is aimless speculation. The Sheehan movement could be a blip on the radar screen. There could be more bloodshed in Iraq, giving momentum to Sheehan. The president’s poll numbers could drop further, or they could rise, if Iraqis actually hammer out a constitution and the tide turns on the battlefield.

Save tomorrow for tomorrow, Ron. Tell us about today. That’s a complicated enough task in itself. Leave the fortune-telling for Madam Portentia.

Edward B. Colby

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.