OPINION | An apology to Joe Biden, the unbeatable favorite

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OVER the past month, you may have read, here and elsewhere, that Joe Biden had about as much of a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination as he had of playing point guard for the Brooklyn Nets.

Phrases like “on life support,” “dead in the water” and “stiffer than Elvis” might have given the casual reader the impression that the former vice president was finished. Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, the lead singer of K-pop sensation BTS and my neighbor’s cat were all deemed more likely to be the Democratic nominee than the 77-year-old from Scranton with the cognitive deficiencies, the cashless campaign and the perfect record of losing every presidential race he’d ever contested.

In the light of recent events, we now realize, of course, that Mr. Biden was all along the unbeatable favorite, a man of unsurpassed oratorical talent, peerless political gifts and a wily campaigner’s genius. We would like to extend our apologies to Mr. Biden, his family and our readers for any misleading information they may have inadvertently received.

It’s easier to laugh, I suppose, than to acknowledge the humbling truth: When it comes to political commentary (to borrow the immortal phrase of the late, great screenwriter William Goldman), “Nobody knows anything.”

You would think by now that pundits would have learned a little humility when commenting on the likely future decisions of voters. Our capacity to be surprised is, curiously, undimmed by the frequency with which we are surprised. Barack Obama, the Tea Party, Brexit, Donald Trump: all major political upsets that have reshaped our world in the past dozen years alone. Who saw them coming? We can take only a little refuge in the fact that we live in an age when politics mocks history. Until Mr. Obama, no senator had been elected straight to the presidency in almost half a century. Until Mr. Trump, no one outside of politics or the military had been elected president. Now Mr. Biden stands ready to break the historical law that no candidate who fails to place in the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire can go on to win the Democratic nomination.

History is a compass, not a map. We should never be so constrained in our thinking as to imagine that historical precedent applies with scientific rigor. In any case, for every precedent, there’s another pointing in a different direction. For all of Mr. Biden’s recent improbability, until a few weeks ago, we were all noting that no socialist had ever been a major-party presidential candidate. Events follow a pattern — until they don’t. Doubtless we will find a way to frame Mr. Biden’s historic success as a precedent — until it isn’t.

I’m not (for once here) just attacking others. I have been wronger than anyone on this topic, and readers of The Wall Street Journal would have been better informed about the presidential race by examining the patterns made by the scraps of food left on their breakfast plates than by reading my observations. While carefully avoiding prognostications, I have joined the chorus of those who asserted confidently, without evidence, that Mr. Biden’s prospects were dire. I have, at various times, been of the mind that pretty well everyone else would win.

In one brief, unaccountable moment of midsummer madness last year, I even suggested that Kamala Harris was the front-runner.

There are larger lessons here we could relearn.

The cynical thing to say would be (to use a quote often attributed to Samuel Goldwyn), “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Or, as a clever British prime minister said, “When giving a forecast, give a number or a date, but never both.”

But the bigger problem in news these days is an irresistible temptation to substitute commentary for reporting, conjecture for analysis. There is an almost willful lack of willingness to be surprised. Too much reporting and commentary — not just in the news business, by the way, but in academia too — now involves the pursuit of evidence, data and anecdotes that confirm our priors. We seek affirmation, not information.

We could all resolve to be better listeners — to be open to the possibility that what we think we know is completely wrong. It so often is, after all.

Now on to what I really wanted to write about this week: There is absolutely no way that Joe Biden will beat Donald Trump in November…

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