2020: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
Robert Stacy McCain
by
Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders during the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last night (YouTube screenshot)

One of the most amazing things about American journalism is the continued employment of political pundits whose penchant for failure would disqualify them from being hired in any other field. All the experts who were wrong about the 2016 election are now confidently making predictions about the 2020 election, as if their credibility were undiminished by their previous mistakes.

Last week, for example, ex-Republican pundit Max Boot — panicked by the sudden meltdown of Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, which he had failed to anticipate — issued a desperate appeal to prevent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination. “Please, Democrats, do the smart thing and coalesce quickly around one of the three moderates — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, or Michael Bloomberg — who are still standing after the first two contests,” Boot begged on Twitter in the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, adding, “The future of our democracy may depend on it.”

Really? Is “our democracy” in such dire peril that it can only be preserved by one of the three Democrats whom Max Boot has named? Or is it rather the case, as I suspect, that Boot is chiefly concerned about rescuing his own damaged reputation? Boot has squandered his credibility by betting on losing horses for nearly two decades. During the Bush era, Boot left the Wall Street Journal to join the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and was among the most sanguine cheerleaders for the Iraq War, failing to anticipate the brutal terrorist insurgency that ultimately destroyed the neoconservative fantasy of turning Mesopotamia into a Western-style liberal democracy.

It would be difficult to list everything Max Boot has been wrong about over the years, and perhaps it’s easier to just say “everything,” but certainly the Yale-educated CFR senior fellow is not alone in his propensity for false prophecy. He was part of the Never Trump crowd that tried to prevent Donald Trump from winning the 2016 GOP nomination and then, confident that Hillary Clinton would beat Trump, yelled “all in,” shoving their entire pile of chips onto a losing bet.

Any experienced poker player can perhaps sympathize with the plight of Never Trump Republicans; I once went all-in with a full house and lost when the other guy turned over four of a kind. But I’ve never claimed to be an “expert” on poker, the way Boot and his cohort assert their expertise about politics and policy. The whole crowd — including former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, Bush-era campaign operative Rick Wilson, and Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, to name a few — simply could not believe that Trump might actually be elected, and they have never forgiven him (or the nearly 63 million Americans who voted for him) for proving them wrong. None of Trump’s policy successes — crushing ISIS, promoting a robust economy, appointing two conservative Supreme Court justices and numerous other federal judges, and more — can ever redeem him in the eyes of the self-appointed political “experts” whose credibility is further diminished every time Trump wins again.

Having lost any ability to influence Republicans, the Never Trump crowd has now begun offering advice to Democrats, and it’s tempting to hope Democrats will listen to these “experts.” If Max Boot has always been wrong about everything, then what should we conclude about his claim that “the smart thing” for Democrats would be to nominate a moderate candidate to oppose Trump in November?

First of all, beyond overestimating his own influence with Democrats, Boot may be wildly overestimating how many “moderate” voters will turn out for Democratic primaries or caucuses. Certainly, there is reason to doubt that Bloomberg can be the moderate messiah for whom Boot is pining. Bloomberg has so far spent $400 million on a campaign aimed at winning a large chunk of the 1,617 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, March 3. Although his unprecedented spending has boosted him into third place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls among Democratic candidates, he still trails Sanders by double-digit margins. Sanders appears poised to win Saturday’s caucus in Nevada, to be followed a week later by the South Carolina primary, and Bloomberg isn’t even on the ballot in either of those states. In the Super Tuesday states that Bloomberg has blitzed with campaign ads, the most recent polls show Sanders leading in California and Texas and tied with Bloomberg for the lead in Virginia.

Bloomberg has come under savage attack by his Democratic rivals, who took turns whacking him like a piñata at a kid’s birthday party during Wednesday night’s Las Vegas debate. However many votes he can buy with his saturation advertising, Bloomberg has a record of saying things that won’t please the Democratic grassroots. What he chiefly seems to be doing is splitting the so-called “moderate” vote for which Buttigieg and Klobuchar are contending. Numerous pundits have pointed out that the composite “moderate” vote so far has exceeded Sanders’ total, but that’s a mirror-reverse of what happened to Republicans in the 2016 primary campaign. If the votes won by Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had been combined, Trump might not have won the nomination. But that’s like saying that if a frog had wings, it could fly. Neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar show any intention of quitting soon, and both Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are still in the race. The hypothetical composite “moderate” Democrat candidate exists nowhere except in the imagination of pundits. The non-Sanders vote is still being split five ways, and meanwhile Bernie keeps chugging along like a plucky character in a children’s bedtime story, “The Little Old Socialist That Could.”

Why are Max Boot and the rest of the “Anybody but Bernie” crowd so certain that Sanders could not beat Trump next November? Or, to put it another way, why are these pundits so certain that a “moderate” Democrat would win? Their pretention to possessing foreknowledge of future events is foolish. We simply don’t know what will happen in November, and it helps to remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous comment that “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

More than eight months remain until Election Day, and a lot can happen in that time. The most likely outcome, by historical standards, is that Trump will be reelected. His administration has been successful in many ways, particularly in terms of economics. Jobs, jobs, jobs — it’s a point that Trump hammers home in every speech, and, unless there’s another 2008-sized financial collapse between now and Election Day, Trump’s economic record is a powerful argument for a second term. Whenever anyone expresses confidence in Trump’s reelection, Professor Glenn Reynolds deploys an old line from Star Wars: “Don’t get cocky.” And that’s probably the best advice of all. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the political “experts” really don’t know much more than the rest of us.

Robert Stacy McCain
Robert Stacy McCain
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