Political Hay

No One Knows Anything

Once again this political week, life intervened.

By 3.23.07

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It has been a sad and cancer-ridden week with the passing of conservative blogger Cathy Seipp and the news of Elizabeth Edwards. Every now and then we are reminded that we are not masters of our own destiny and can control far less than we imagine. Politicians and those who follow their every move get caught up in the delusion that every campaign can navigate successfully to victory if only they can shape the message and the messenger just so. Six-point plans and eight-point paradigms populate many political campaigns, fostering the notion that a really smart candidate armed with a savvy staff, enough money and a PowerPoint presentation can plot a winning strategy while developing solutions to problems as far flung as AIDS, Iraq and global warming.

Then, stuff happens. Just like real life, you can only plan and plot so much. Candidates and sometimes their family members get sick or die in plane crashes or just say the most outlandish things. Suddenly all the polls, the graphs, and the schedules get tossed up in the air. The plans go out the window and everyone has to start anew.

If we hear someone is dropping out or not dropping into the race the pundits and political gurus begin plotting and predicting how the possible absence of a candidate might affect all the others and which demographic could get parceled out to the other candidates like children in a custody fight. Perhaps it would be useful to stop for a moment and consider, as William Goldman once said about Hollywood, that "no one knows anything."

We know some things of course. Chris Dodd and Duncan Hunter aren't going to be President, for starters. That is to say we know the easy stuff. But the hard stuff is, well, harder. How voters ten months from now are going to regard John McCain or Barack Obama is not only hard to know, it is unknowable. Life intervenes. Wars get won or lost, other candidates wear well or poorly, and sadly people get sick. Voters reassess the choices and newcomers enter, or not. When reality intrudes into a campaign it should remind us how little we know and how foolhardy it is to gaze into the crystal ball of politics -- one of the endeavors most subject to human frailty and chance.

In our more introspective moments it should also give us some sense of humility about governing itself. If we think we know what will happen when we topple a vicious dictator whose sheer brutality has contained the ethnic hatreds of generations we are sadly mistaken, but we should not be surprised. If we think we can predict what will occur if we now leave precipitously, we are also deluded. For years conservatives chided liberals for imagining that government programs, regulations and transfer payments could alter human nature and eliminate poverty. It only seems obvious in retrospect that the more complicated the endeavor the less we will be able to control the outcome.

This does not mean that candidates should fire all their consultants (there are good and distinct reasons for doing that, we can agree), or that we should cease to do challenging things as a nation. It does mean we should proceed cautiously, with due respect for the law of unintended consequences and the intractable habits of human beings. We should also perhaps grant to our opponents -- be they in another party or another campaign -- that we may not have all the answers and that we all operate with imperfect knowledge. A little more "there but for the grace of God go I" would be a welcome relief in a campaign season already devolving into the hunt for the gotcha moment or quote in an opponent's past that might prove a disqualifying event. So before we leap at our opponents' misfortunes we should remember ours may be just around the corner. You just never know what is going to happen.

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