Perhaps no profession leans on the power of delusion so much as politics.
That middling crowd in a city of millions? Proof that they love me.
That poll showing a looming loss a week before the vote? The only poll that counts is the one on election day.
That crushing defeat on election day? Not a verdict on me; our message just didn't get through.
To be sure, perhaps no calling except professional sports requires its participants to so publicly put themselves on the line, with a huge potential for humiliation — and without the athletes' safety net of public acclaim and outlandish financial compensation.
Most politicians are in it for the service: Does any other reason offset the grief?
Still, delusion ranks as one of the best-honed political characteristics, as several recent developments have made clear.
A mild one, residing on the border of public relations, came from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield congressman. In a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee's Christopher Cadelago, McCarthy tried mightily to spin the GOP's California blowout in November. (The party had a net loss of one congressional seat, giving it 14 of 53 seats.)
"I believe California is more competitive than probably other places," McCarthy said. "I also think that by playing in California, it helped us win other places across the country. Unfortunately, the Democrats spent a great deal. It's not easy to win [here], but I am not giving up on California."
Well, he can't say he will give up on California — destructive message, that. But the fact remains that much of California is not competitive in the least. Most of it is owned lock, stock and ballot box by the enemy party, Democrats. The state's ascendant political groups — independents, Latinos and Asians — are loyal Democratic voters here. And if things are bad for Republicans now, ponder conditions after the next census and redistricting, after even more growth by those groups.
To his credit, McCarthy was defending his party's free spending in several competitive districts it ultimately lost (and the GOP's decision not to play big in a district that turned out to be close). And amid the optimism he did say something blatantly honest: "California did not turn out the way I wanted it to turn out."
In any case, his drive-by delusion paled in comparison with the grand exercise now being undertaken by another Republican: Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina is the former Hewlett Packard chief executive who challenged California Democrat Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate race in 2010, in what was Fiorina's first bid for elective office. You might think that losing by 10 points to Boxer, long derided by Republicans as a lightweight, might cast a shadow over any future political endeavors. That's where delusion comes in handy.
Fiorina's next move: running for president. In a November appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," she coyly confirmed her interest.
"When people keep asking you over and over again, you have to pause and reflect. So I'll pause and reflect at the right time," she told moderator Chuck Todd. National Journal later reported that she had deputized associates to start hiring with the expectation of an early 2015 announcement. (Efforts to reach Fiorina, who has declined interviews lately, were unsuccessful).
Fiorina spent the last few months traveling to places such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — detect a trend? — to make speeches and support midterm candidates, many of them women. She has scheduled speeches to influential groups in early 2015.
Presumably, her presidential campaign would be premised on Fiorina standing out in a sea of dark gray and navy suits. But here's a reality check from California: In the Senate race, Fiorina lost women by double digits. And that's not the worst of it.
Her 2010 campaign still owes providers and staffers — some of them her most loyal aides — almost half a million dollars, which, along with her rocky tenure at HP, would seem to cut into her credibility as a business whiz. As the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a recent piece by conservative columnist Debra Saunders: "Carly Fiorina, the deadbeat presidential candidate."
And Democrats still celebrating their evisceration of Mitt Romney's business career could only dream of Republicans seriously considering someone captured on video defending the decision to ship 30,000 jobs overseas.
"When you're talking about massive layoffs, which we did … perhaps the work needs to be done somewhere else?" Fiorina was shown saying in one of the more devastating ads of the 2010 cycle.
Marty Wilson, a longtime GOP strategist who worked for Fiorina in her Senate race, said she would bring underestimated assets to a national bid: a massive fundraising list from the 2010 campaign, policy views that dovetail with socially conservative primary voters, and her gender.
"No one should underestimate her," said Wilson, who is now vice president for public affairs at the California Chamber of Commerce. (Wilson and his former firm are owed more than $80,000 by Fiorina's last campaign, according to Federal Election Commission reports, and no arrangements have been made for repayment.)
Wilson may have planted a seed for Fiorina when, after the 2010 campaign, he encouraged her to run for president in 2012. "She just told me I was nuts," he said.
Did she mean delusional?