The Trouble with Events

17 January 2024

The Trouble with Events

By Gwynne Dyer

Harold Macmillan, British prime minister about half a century ago, was once asked what was the greatest challenge for a political leader. “Events, dear boy, events,” he replied. The same is true in this presidential election year in the United States.

The event most likely to knock Donald Trump off course is a conviction on one of the 91 criminal charges he faces. It wouldn’t stop him from running for the presidency – at least three people have done that in the past, including one who was actually in prison – but it would certainly cramp his style.

Recent polls show Trump and Joe Biden neck and neck in the presidential race, with the gap between them often smaller than the poll’s margin of error. However, an Axios poll last year found that 45% of Republican voters would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony by a jury. (Only 35% would.) That could kill his chances of winning.

Joe Biden’s unforeseen ‘event’, already underway, is the war in Gaza, in which the incumbent has unflinchingly supported Israel even as the Palestinian casualties, at least two-thirds of them civilians, are nearing 25,000 dead and 60,000 wounded.

That is eating deeply into young Americans’ support for Biden: he now leads Trump among younger voters by only 1%. It came as a bolt from the blue for the US Democrats, but if the war in Gaza lasts all this year (as Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu clearly wants), it would probably kill Biden’s chance of re-election next November.

The most interesting ‘event’, however, is the possible death or incapacitation of one of the candidates between now and November. If you look at the actuarial tables used by the US Social Security Administration, there is an 11% chance that one of these two men dies this year.

If it were Trump who went to his eternal (but unspecified) reward, most leading Republican politicians would be secretly grateful. Trump is not the candidate they want in November, for the same reason that he’s the Republican candidate that most Democratic Party leaders want to face. They both see him as an electoral liability to his own party.

Absent Trump, the Republicans would pick either Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis as their presidential candidate – that’s what the current Republican Party primaries are really about. If they chose Haley, they’d probably win, because she’s obviously trying to wrest the party from the grip of Trump and his fanatical followers.

What if Joe Biden were the one to die? He’s a bit older than Trump (43 months), but for actuarial purposes he has about the same level of risk, especially given Trump’s eating habits.

The Democratic Party reveres Biden for his distinguished past, and an unusually high proportion of senior Democratic politicians actually like him, but there would be silent rejoicing at his timely demise. They accepted his decision to seek a second term because resisting it would be too costly in political terms, but they are now suffering buyers’ remorse.

This is probably unfair – Biden’s performance in office has passed muster, especially on the economy and on climate. It may even be unwise. But Biden looks his age and he sometimes stumbles over his words, and they would prefer a younger, shinier candidate. By which I do not mean Kamala Harris.

Many Democrats would feel no obligation to keep Vice President Harris as their presidential candidate in 2024 if Biden died before the next election, and they would try to dislodge her from that role. This would probably unleash a civil war within the party, so the net effect might be to lower their chances of winning in 2024.

And finally, what would happen if both the old geezers died before November? This is not a one-in-eight chance, more like one-in-a-hundred, but miracles do happen. Where would America be then? For that matter, where would the world be?

The United States is no longer the sole superpower, but it is still the flywheel that keeps the whole system ticking over smoothly. Most people prefer predictability even when they say they long for change, so a US presidential election in which both leading candidates are dark horses from a younger generation would definitely qualify as a major ‘event’.

It could be as formative an event as the US election of 1960, when a president born in the 19th century (Dwight Eisenhower) gave way to 20th-century characters like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. They weren’t always admirable (especially Nixon), but they were definitely more in tune with the times.

American politics is certainly overdue for another phase change, but it’s not going to happen this time. Not unless the Reaper intervenes.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 14. (“This…Harris”; and “The United…event”)