The Magazine

We Do Not Know

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

“The phrase ‘I do not know’ becomes inexpressibly bitter once one has proclaimed oneself to be a pundit, if not a polymath, especially when station, office, and dignity seem to demand that we should know.”

Picture of giant red question mark

—Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, or
on Religious Power and Judaism
(1783)

Mendelssohn was referring to the original pundits of the East—advisers to the king learned in religion, philosophy, and law. But our modern pundits seem equally averse to Socratic admissions of ignorance. They, like their ancient forebears, wish to claim full understanding of the present and clear divination of the future.

Let us avoid that fatal conceit. Let us boldly proclaim several things we do not know—even though our “station, office, and dignity seem to demand that we should know.”

We do not know who the Republican nominee for president will be.

It could be Mitt Romney—though our warnings in this space a couple of weeks ago that his victory is by no means inevitable seem increasingly justified by the dynamics of the race.

The nominee could be Newt Gingrich—whose rise in the polls has been spectacular, and whose skills and appeal are still widely underestimated by many elites, including conservative elites. On the other hand, Gingrich’s own statement last Thursday that “I’m going to be the nominee” should be taken as a contrarian indicator that his campaign could hit some bumps. The statement was also a classic example of one of Gingrich’s failings—that he even more than most politicians wishes to be “a pundit, if not a polymath,” for whom “the phrase ‘I do not know’ becomes inexpressibly bitter.”

The nominee could be Ron Paul—though it is likely that he will exceed expectations in early caucuses and primaries, but hit a ceiling of around a quarter of the vote.

It could be Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, or Rick Santorum—though it’s probable that only one of them will survive Iowa, and that even that survivor will never quite make it into the top tier.

It could be someone not yet in the race. If the Gingrich surge turns into a Newt bubble, and if there continues to be the present level of resistance to Romney, then anyone from Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin to Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush—or someone else!—could jump into the race, or be dragged into the race, at various junctures over the next couple of months. Such a newcomer could quite conceivably win.

So we do not know who the nominee will be. Nor do we know who the nominee should be.

There would seem to be two basic criteria for answering this question: Can the nominee win the general election? And would he or she be a good president?

As to the latter, one could make a good case that all those mentioned above, except for Ron Paul, would be considerable improvements on President Obama. And one could make a variety of arguments for the virtues and limitations of each of the various candidates. Many of us at The Weekly Standard know many of the candidates quite well. Yet we differ among ourselves as to which, if in the Oval Office, would be most effective at governing the country, advancing the conservative agenda, and defeating our adversaries. Some of us have changed our minds on this question over the course of the campaign so far.

Confident pundits who treat the choice among them as an open-and-shut matter are behaving as .  .  . mere pundits. As are those who confidently proclaim which of the candidates is “most electable.” For example, right now, Romney seems a stronger general election candidate than Gingrich. That’s what most of the polling so far would suggest. But these polls don’t capture the implications of the last couple of weeks of the campaign, which suggest that Gingrich can make the case for himself to heretofore unconvinced voters in a way Romney cannot. Admittedly, these are mostly Republican voters Newt has been charming. Can he similarly win over independents, or disaffected Democrats?

We don’t know. We do suspect, however, that the mainstream media’s view—and conservative elites’ view—of who the swing voters are is somewhat distorted. Every journalist knows upper-middle-class, suburban, socially moderate independents on the East and West Coasts who (for now, at least) would be more likely to vote Republican if the nominee were Romney rather than Gingrich. Journalists do not tend to know the lower-middle-class, non-college-educated, churchgoing voters of exurban Tampa, or the working-class Reagan Democrats of Toledo, who are also swing voters, and who might prefer Gingrich. In any case, for now we don’t really know which of the two frontrunners—or, for that matter, which of the other candidates—would have a better chance to win. And that’s without factoring in possible third and fourth parties, which could well appear on the scene in 2012 and would have different kinds of appeal depending on the identity of the GOP nominee.

We do not know. But if it’s not given to us mere humans to know, we are capable of learning. We’re a month away from the Iowa caucus. There are three months before 90 percent of the Republicans in the nation begin voting, and even then, further information will be produced and processed as the primaries unfold. The Democrats are stuck with their nominee—a failed and unpopular president. Republicans, by contrast, are free to choose. They are in no way required to rush to judgment. And they need not defer to pundits whose “station, office, and dignity” impel them to claim to know what they do not know.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers