Wherever I go these days, I’m peppered with questions about who is most likely to win the Democratic nomination for president and who is likely to win the presidency.
I will always say that I don’t know, that there is no way at this point of knowing, but they often respond: Well, you know more than me.
Yes, I know enough to know that predictions at this point are meaningless and irresponsible. There are so many moving parts that could have a direct and significant impact on the race, and we have no idea how they will pan out, like cases working their way through the courts and the impeachment trial.
But, there are also the things we can’t predict, like a national or international crisis.
Last week, President Donald Trump demonstrated the incredible power the president has to create such a crisis with the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.
There is no way to know as of yet what prompted Trump to take such an action. The administration has said that there was an imminent threat from Soleimani, who was actively planning attacks on American interests. However, as CNN reported, “The lack of evidence provided to lawmakers and the public has fueled lingering skepticism about whether the strike was justified.”
That combined with the fact that this president lies constantly, and indiscriminately, and is currently clinging to his lies about his efforts to extort the president of Ukraine, and it’s hard to believe anything he says.
Whatever Trump’s reasoning, he has, at least for the moment, shifted the narrative.
Impeachment talk recedes a bit as newspaper column inches and television news analysis adjust to include coverage of the attack, fears of Iranian retribution and the broader question about what this all means for our interests and allies in the Middle East.
Democratic candidates on the trail are now discussing the Iranian episode in addition to health care, an issue that has come to define the contest.
And as all this happens, voters see candidates through a different lens. Candidates deemed strong on domestic policy may not enjoy that same favor on foreign policy.
These unexpected crises can completely upend a presidential campaign.
Remember, for instance, how the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the financial crisis completely altered the presidential race in 2008.
People were terrified; there seemed to be more bad news in the financial sector every day, each account worse than its predecessor. This fear and panic became part of the electorate’s calculation, and calm-under-pressure Barack Obama benefited.
While John McCain suspended his campaign to fly back to Washington, a move that read as more showy dramatics than prudent stewardship, Obama refused to do so, saying, “I think it is going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once.’’
Voters, and the media, saw the difference in the way the two men responded to the crisis, and their fortunes shifted.
The Pew Research Center has reported:
“Pew Research Center data analyzing the tone and focus of media coverage through the final stretch of that election showed how that coverage shifted dramatically in mid-September 2008 to focus on the financial crisis and the media narrative grew increasingly critical of Republican candidate John McCain. During this same period, our public opinion survey data indicate that what had essentially been a deadlocked contest between McCain and Obama before the Lehman meltdown turned into a solid lead for Obama in the weeks that followed.”
Presidential races can turn on a dime, or a $10 trillion dollar loss in American household wealth.
The financial crisis happened relatively close to the election in 2008. This year, there are still 10 months to go.
There will be so many twists and turns that an electoral outcome is unknowable.
For instance, there are at least five major Supreme Court decisions that will arrive by June. According to The New York Times’ Adam Liptak, they involve weighty questions that could completely change the conversation, and, I would submit, cause a cultural crisis. They are cases that will decide whether the court will restrict abortion rights and possibly revisit Roe v. Wade, whether Trump can strip protections from Dreamers and whether civil rights laws extend to the protection of LGBT people.
Furthermore, we can’t predict the severity of the next mass shooting or who will be its targets. We don’t know which natural disasters are on the horizon or how Trump or his Democratic opponents will respond to them.
We can’t know any of this. As such, we can’t be sure of which candidate would be the best counterpoint to Trump dealing with these issues.
So, here is my advice to Democrats: Stop fretting. Worry about what you can control and make choices with the knowledge you have when you cast your vote. The future will take care of itself as it always does. A solid, well-rounded candidate should be capable of responding to any crisis. That’s the nature of the presidency.