Economist Paul Samuelson used to say, that if you’re going to forecast, forecast often. As a columnist, I think I’ve failed to pick the winner only once since 1980 – in 2016. I’ve touted a couple of non-starters, too (Colin Powell, Robert Gates).
Two years ago, I compared the Trump family saga to the famous old Beverly Hillbillies television series, in reverse, and ventured that the dark sitcom was more likely to run its full four years than to be ended abruptly by Congress.
Last July, in I wondered if Trump might not run again. What would be the fun for him in that? “It is always possible that Trump will run the table and, like Clinton, Bush, and Obama, settle into a second term more comfortable than the one before. I put the chances at one in three.”
Now Trump is indeed running again. He has involved the United States in bitter economic wars with China, Iran and Mexico, and has exacerbated the already strained relations with Russia he had hoped to ease. Meanwhile, he is staging re-enactments of his 2016 campaign, rallies reminiscent of his days in reality TV. Maybe he’s thinking of the banking matters that Special Counsel Robert Mueller referred to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In my circle, the conventional wisdom has become that Trump will win. Fear has grown that the various large constituencies of the Democratic Party will tear the party apart: progressives, moderates, women, African-Americans, immigrants. Trump’s taunting will make only make it worse.
So here goes: The nation may be one good speech and 16 months of cautious campaigning away from peace. At this point, it is no more than a hunch. The candidate most likely to give it is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Of the five leading candidates in The New York Times weekly survey, two are already beginning to fade: Bernie Sanders because he earlier tried and failed, Elizabeth Warren because she set her eyes on the job only late in her career, and so veered too far left. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Peter Buttigieg all have disadvantages, but all three are electable, given a successful primary campaign. (See the Harris profile in The New Yorker, an appraisal of Buttigieg in the New York Times Magazine.).
Buttigieg could continue to soar. At 37, he has far less baggage than the others, and that which he possesses – his difficulties with South Bend’s legacy-dominated police department, his years as a closeted gay man in college and after – he has handled well so far. Wall Street likes him, not necessarily a plus in today’s Democratic Party, though the money pours in. (It was Darryl Zanuck who declared of film producer Robert Evans, under criticism as a youthful actor, “The kid stays in the picture.” In Buttigieg’s case, it seems to have been the same kind of small donor success that lifted Barack Obama above Hillary Clinton. Yearning for a fresh-face centrist is apparent even at the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.
The precedent for the 2020 election may be the 1952 presidential campaign. Unwilling to re-nominate Thomas Dewey, who had narrowly lost to Harry Truman in 1948, and convinced that Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, an isolationist and New Deal foe, would lose to the eventual Democratic Party nominee, Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois, the establishment Republican Party put itself in receivership. Five-star Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was a thoroughly proven leader, a moderate, with no previous party affiliation. Afghanistan veteran Ensign Pete Buttigieg (USNR-Ret.) is an identifiable Democrat with little more than a record of caution and ambition.
The speech I have in mind – the first of a series of speeches, naturally – has to communicate both imperturbability and a compelling vision of the task at hand. For exemplary compassion and compression, see Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a very high standard, to be sure. For a glimpse of Buttigieg’s 21st Century style, see his 11-minute appearance with Bill Maher
The Democratic debate skirmishes end on July 30-31. August is time out. The campaign proper starts on Labor Day. At that point we will be fourteen months and one good election outcome from the beginning of what might turn out to be be a fresh start.
David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of Somerville-based economicprincipals.com, where this essay first ran.