In 1992 I was watching television at friend’s house and Bill Clinton was on denying something about his draft dodging. I forget the details of what he was saying, but I recall being a bit flabbergasted at the answer. Everyone knew he gamed the system to avoid service. Lots of ambitious young men thought that was the way to go. They thought, in addition to being dangerous, the draft was a bad career move. Given what was happening in the country, that was not an unreasonable assumption.
I really could not see how being honest about avoiding the draft was going to be a terrible setback to his campaign. A big chunk of the voters were in his age group so they knew perfectly well what he did as many of them faced the same choices. Plenty of Republicans had done the same thing. More important, most of the press at the time was his age and they too had gamed the system to avoid the draft. Even so, he chose to lie and lie poorly.
Sitting there with my friend watching it, I said something along the lines like, “I just can’t see why he chooses to lie when the truth would be better for him. I can’t believe people will vote for a guy who is such an obvious liar and so bad at it.” We both agreed that there was no way Clinton would win the nomination or beat Bush in the general. That’s not the first time I was wrong about politics, but the first time I was that wrong.
What I did not see back then was that the world was changing quickly. There was a demographic change as the Boomers took over the country. There was also the end of the Cold War. Like everyone at the time, I had grown up with normal being the US and Russia, armed to the teeth, wrestling for control of the world. Frivolous men like Bill Clinton had no place in national politics, because no one would risk it.
The point here is that even when logic and history are on your side, you can believe things that turn out to be totally wrong. In retrospect, Clinton winning in 1992 makes sense, but at the time a lot of people, not just me, thought it was preposterous. On the other hand, a lot of people were sure Clinton would win, once he was the nominee. They turned out to be right, even though their arguments at the time were mostly wishful thinking.
That’s why I have never discounted the Trump phenomenon or the Sanders campaign. Things are the way they are until they are not and you never really know change is happening until it is on top of you. That and a country that would elect and re-elect a ridiculous person like Barak Obama simply because he is black and has a funny name is capable of anything.
Looking at the GOP race heading into Iowa next week, everyone seems to be certain, but no one agrees on who will win and what it will mean. Nate Silver has been calling the GOP side for Cruz, but he has been wrong a lot lately. Silver missed the Trump phenomenon so badly, it is not unreasonable to think it is due to animus. I don’t follow him enough to know, as I find him to be an obnoxious twerp, who needs to be punched in the face – a lot.
The professional anti-Trump faction is sure Trump will lose in Iowa and they are carrying on like it is a certainty. You can be sure the chattering skulls are ready to race off to the nearest TV station to shout, “I told you so!” The National Review special “Trump Lost!” edition is already in the can. Jim Geraghty has been out talking about how the polls must be wrong because Trump is going to lose. As to who will win, they are all over the map.
The thing is, when nothing goes to form, it’s a good idea to start contemplating the unthinkable. Jerry Falwell just endorsed Trump. That’s on par with the Koch brothers endorsing Bernie Sanders. It’s not just a one-off either. Polls show that Trump is doing very well with Evangelicals so I guess the better analogy is the Libertarian Party putting Bernie Sanders up as their nominee.
That’s the other lesson of the 1992 election. When things change in the culture, everything is up for grabs in politics. The other way to look at it is when the politics are suddenly a scramble, it means the culture is undergoing a structural change. After ’92, we saw the rise of global finance, mass migration and a communications revolution. If Trump wins Iowa, it’s time to start thinking about what the new normal is going to be like.