Will the Democratic Party Have an Iraq War Pundits Problem?

Do you remember the Iraq War Pundits? The political analysts and especially journalists who spent the run-up to the Iraq War declaring their certainty that Saddam Hussein had chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs? That the invasion of Iraq would be quick and easy, and usher in decency and democracy in Iraqi politics? Richard Cohen of the Washington Post famously told us that “Only a fool, or possibly a Frenchmen, could conclude (that Iraq did not have WMDs.)”

What made the episode so especially grating for those of us in the reality-based community was that, years later, even after their predictions and analysis had been proven utterly wrong, people like Richard Cohen maintained their positions as opinion leaders, speaking (and being listened to) as if they were respectable wise men, whose take on world events still deserved to be central to American political discussion.

Well, now we have the wise men of the Democratic media. They told us Donald Trump couldn’t win the Republican primary, that  THE PARTY DECIDES so it must therefore be an establishment Republican. Then they nominated Trump. They told us that Bernie Sanders had no chance in the Democratic Primary.Then he came within a-few-lucky-bounces of winning the Democratic primary. They told us that the Democratic primary was an above-board affair, a level playing field on which Hillary won “fair and square.” Then the DNC and Podesta emails came out. They told us that Hillary Clinton’s plummeting approval ratings, her inferior performance in head-to-head matchups with Republicans, and the decades of controversy that have dogged her wouldn’t be a problem for her election. Heck, they told us that a quarter century of being a high-profile target for Republican attacks would make election-year attacks less likely to stick to her. She’s fireproof! People have heard it all before! Apparently, our discourse about popular politics in this media-saturated age is being lead by people who have never heard of the concept of an “established brand,” and don’t understand how such a thing influences people’s perceptions. They told us that the makeup of the American electorate, especially in presidential election years, would make a victory by a white nationalist who is openly misogynist impossible. Well, here we are. We had the most popular politician in American available to be our nominee, and instead we (I’ll be generous and say “we”) nominated someone who was grotesquely unpopular throughout the primary. The people who devoted themselves to making sure that happened, and who assured us that we should trust them and ignore our lying eyes when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s strength as a candidate, cannot lead this party anymore, or we’re going to get more of the same.

We have been listening to the wrong people. Democrats’ understanding of national politics have been guided primarily by emperors who have no clothes. They need to sit on the bench for a few years, and the people in and around the party who were able to accurately foresee just how weak a candidate Hillary Clinton would be deserve to have their opinions respected. There has to be a consequences to a failure this great, or we will just keep failing over and over.

The 2018 campaign starts today. The 202o campaign starts today. We can win, but we have to stop doing what made us lose. And that means we have to stop listening to the people who lost this race. Let’s be better than the Iraq War Pundits.




    • Plenty of the people who declared in 2002 that there were no WMDs were wacky, too. It is true enough that getting that question right didn’t make International ANSWER into a useful analyst of politics.

      There were many voices pointing out throughout the primary and general election how weak Clinton was as a candidate. They were not generally well-received. But the problem goes a great deal deeper than that one observation. The political analyst establishment failed across the entire range of important questions involving this election: Trump can’t win the primary, The Party Decides thesis, the impossibility of Trump improving on Romney’s performance among minority populations, the strength of the anti-establishment mood in the country, Clinton’s capacity to deliver groups that didn’t vote for her in the primary, her capacity to deliver good turnout among groups that did vote for her in the primary, the degree to which right-leaning women would be moved by attacks on Trump’s obnoxious character…the list is endless. Even little things, like whether “basket of deplorables” was a blunder, they couldn’t get right, and they couldn’t get them right in a manner that demonstrates a consistent cause of their error – a flawed understanding of the electorate.

      But that observation itself isn’t enough for me to name anyone a seer who has the answers we need to follow. I haven’t found anyone who got the election right enough for that. I am only willing to go far enough to make the negative case about those we shouldn’t listen to, or at least, not treat as if they have some expertise or insight that makes them authorities who deserve our deference.

      I am not ready to elevate anyone, but I sure am comfortable knocking a lot of people down from their high horses.

      And the horses certainly were high this cycle.


      • It’s an interesting question which partly depends on the post mortem. I mean, in Iraq, the lack of WMD was evident before hand and the administration just lied about it. There’s no comparable structure here.

        Another challenge: Let’s assume we have a probability oracle that can tell us the true probability of an event that happened. (Afterwards, it’s 1 of course, since it did happen, so I mean the true probability in the sense of if we reran the even 100 times). Given the happening, it’s not trivial to distinguish between something that was 99% likely to happen (Iraq being a disaster) and something that was 99% unlikely to happen. The probably with a lot of confident analysis is that even if one should be confident (because 99% sure or even 80% sure) one can still have the wrong prediction.

        At the moment, my tentative conclusion is that campaign structures don’t matter even as much as we were used to thinking. But this is hugely defeasible. I don’t quite know what to tell the next Democratic campaign. Dialing down the GOTV seems wrong, yet GOTV didn’t have the differential effect we expected (the Clinton campaign contacted 2x the voters the Trump campaign did!).


      • I have to disagree with you about what was obvious about Iraq, or at least be a little more precise with the phrasing, and in a manner that has implications for the parallel structure.

        It was not obvious that there were no WMDs. It was obvious Bush was lying. It was obvious they didn’t have the necessary evidence to prove their case. It was obvious they did not really know what the truth was about whether there were WMDs. It was obvious that the threat they claimed was not nearly as serious, likely, or imminent as they claimed. One could reasonably draw the No WMDs conclusion from all of this, but one could also draw other conclusions, such as “I don’t know” or “probably not” or “They may have some old mustard gas shells or something.” But to leap all the way to confidently stating that the WMDs and programs were the absolute nullity they turned out to be, from the evidence available during the period before the Iraq War, required some guesswork – quite plausible guesswork, but still – somewhat beyond the evidence.

        And I think it’s the same thing with this season’s election punditry. Yes, there were many observations that are related to “Hillary Clinton is going to lose” that were obvious, such as “Hillary Clinton does not generate much enthusiasm” or “Hillary Clinton is very widely unpopular” or “Younger voters, always a key Democratic voting bloc, don’t like Hillary Clinton,” that one could have used to conclude that she would lose the race. But, again, it is entirely reasonable for someone to have drawn a conclusion somewhat short of that, such as “Hillary Clinton is not a lock to win like we’re being told” or “Hillary Clinton will have no or negative coat tails and we won’t take the Senate.” To make the leap all the to a Clinton loss to Trump, though it turned out to be true, was a reach from the available data.

        So, in both situations, it isn’t necessarily the case that the people who made the maximalist prediction that turned out right are better voices to listen to than those who made a similar but more modest one.

        But in both cases, the gradations on accuracy between the roughly-similar predictions of failure are vanishingly small compared to the gulf between the confident pundits, who were hugely wrong on both the big picture and the numerous little points that made it up, and the skeptics, who got the big picture and somewhere between most and all of the little questions right.


      • (former LGM lurker/occasional commenter here, stopped visiting there, but was happy to see that you have a blog)

        I appreciate the careful point you’re making here. I voted Bernie in the primary and I’m not convinced he would have won. Nor am I convinced about what (if anything) Hillary did wrong that was determinative. Clearly appealing to right-leaning women and attacking Trump’s personal behavior didn’t work, but it seemed like it was going to for a while!

        But I am convinced that all the people who voiced elite consensus about Hillary, Bernie, and the orange fascist are not to be treated as special authorities. Not to say they’re wrong about everything, but they get no heightened deference.


  1. Pingback: Starting to Sort Out the Election | Mitigated Frenzy

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