When you write about war, Barbara Tuchman once told aspiring historians, write as though you don't know who won. That's hard to do. It's just as hard to write about which presidential candidate will win a tight race, or even a presidential debate. Who among the smug punditry would have predicted Mitt Romney's repeated knockdowns of Barack Obama in their first debate?
The pundit buzz had been that the re-election of the president was inevitable; it was time to uncork the Champagne. The debate proved the celebration was premature.
Some inevitable presidents have lost in the long run; some in the short run. Who was more inevitable than Hillary Clinton, who didn't make it past the nominating convention? Harry Truman is the patron saint of lagging inevitable presidents, to the historic humiliation of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper's infamous early edition front page in 1948, "Dewey Defeats Truman," even became a postage stamp.
Still, the iron law of unintended consequences and the inevitability of unpredictable events continue to keep doubt alive. Voters who have made up minds speak with smug arrogance to anyone who disagrees. The astonishing first presidential debate does not predict the outcome of the election, but it should be a lesson in humility to the wise guys who think they know it all.
I overheard this typical and telling conversation the other day between a man and a woman, obviously friends, that grew heated over coffee in a Manhattan cafe. "So what do you think of Mitt Romney's 47 percent?" he asked with an exuberant gloat. The young woman shot back, "What do you think of the president's changing stories about what happened in Libya?" Both aimed for the obvious, and their friendly argument demonstrates how partisan gotcha games move the campaign conversation away from what was supposed to be the killer issue for November: jobs, jobs, jobs.
These two voters offer the latest snapshot of where decided voters are. But the important voters, as the campaign rattles past the first of the three debates and into the homestretch, are those who still haven't made up their minds. Their ballots will determine the winner.
But all of us are spectators watching what Samuel Popkin, author of "The Candidate," an analysis of campaign mistakes, calls "the world according to Mike Tyson." When Tyson was the heavyweight champion of the world, someone asked him what he thought about a challenger's strategy. "They all have a strategy," he said, "until they get hit." Barack Obama got hit for the first time in the first debate, and now he and his wise men are looking for a new strategy. It's how a challenger responds to the hit that makes the difference between winning and losing. That's what undecided voters -- and even some of the decided voters -- are now looking for.
It's that intangible, telling detail that suggests who can get up off the floor after taking a succession of power punches. Can the winded challenger stay in the fight after taking the repeated blows to the gut? It's testimony to Barack Obama's agility and rhetorical skills that his miserable record hasn't already put him on the ropes -- a record of high unemployment, mismanagement of the economy and his insistence on blaming a video that almost nobody saw for the murder of an American ambassador by terrorists he wouldn't even call terrorists.
By every measurement, Americans are worse off and less secure than they were four years ago. A quarter of Americans between 25 and 55 years old are out of work. That statistic would be worse if so many workers hadn't quit looking for jobs. Joe Biden was right: The middle class has been "buried" over the past four years.
Americans are less safe in the Middle East. Speaker after speaker at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., hailed the death of Osama bin Laden as proof of the president's manly virtues, but glossed over his policies that weakened us in the eyes of the Muslims everywhere. We didn't know then what we've learned since, that an American ambassador in a hostile land repeatedly begged for more security and died when he couldn't get it. Any other candidate in Barack Obama's shoes would be looking for the smelling salts.
Jon Stewart, the television comic and a Democratic partisan, played videos of the endless contradictory explanations of what happened in Libya, and what didn't happen -- changing stories by the president, his press secretary, the secretary of state, his witless ambassador to the United Nations and by Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "Don't these guys talk to each other?" he asked. It was the question we all asked. Saddest of all was the answer. Yes, they do -- and look what happened.
None of Mitt Romney's knockdown punches were knockout blows, but as any good fight manager knows, the full impact of body blows has a cumulative, delayed effect. We're moving into the most important part of the fight. But we haven't heard the bell on the last round.