“All political lives, unless they are cut off at midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” So said the British politician Enoch Powell, whose own once-stellar career ended in spectacular failure.
Lately, careers have been ending in failure more frequently. Consider Powell’s native Britain, which this week installed its fourth Conservative Party prime minister in 12 years. David Cameron resigned after Britons rejected his advice and voted for Brexit in 2016, Theresa May was ousted in 2019 after failing to implement Brexit, Boris Johnson got Brexit done but was ousted for ethics violations this summer and his successor Liz Truss could lose a general election which must be held by January 2025.
Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for 11 years, Tony Blair for 10. The four most recent incumbents’ average tenure was four.
Failure is apparent across the English Channel as well. France’s allegedly Jupiterian President Emmanuel Macron was reelected in April, but in June voters installed a solid anti-Macron majority in Parliament.
Angela Merkel, hailed by the Economist as German chancellor from 2005 to 2021, has seen her policies repudiated by events. Reliance on Russian natural gas and (in cloudy and not especially windy northern Europe) on wind and solar energy and closure of nuclear plants has left Germans scarfing up firewood to get through the winter.
Merkel’s appeasement of Russia was followed by its invasion of Ukraine, and her low military budgets have left Germany unable to provide much help to the Ukrainians. Not since Neville Chamberlain has a leader widely hailed as a statesman been revealed so quickly to be a failure.
Nor is it apparent that the policies of the world’s great dictatorial leaders have been crowned with success. Vladimir Putin’s demoralized troops have failed to conquer Ukraine; his aggression has pushed Finland and Sweden into applying to join NATO, making the Baltic a NATO lake; his economy has taken a hit and may stagger more in years to come.
His pal Xi Jinping may get another 10-year term as Chinese leader, but China’s economy, with a decline in working-age population and stringent COVID-19 lockdowns, is no longer growing rapidly — or maybe at all. Xi’s China has crushed Hong Kong’s liberties, but has made enemies of all of China’s neighbors.
American leaders are not faring much better. After three successive American presidents have managed to get reelected, albeit with 49%, 51% and 51% of popular votes, their two successors have not managed more than a few moments above 50% job approval.
Donald Trump could claim some positive trends occurred under his watch: lower-income wage gains, low unemployment, border controls that produced a higher-skill legal immigration flow. But COVID-19 lockdowns shut most of the economy down, and violent crime has skyrocketed after the George Floyd riots.
Any positive trends under Joe Biden have been overwhelmed by chaotic results plausibly flowing from his party’s policies: out-of-control inflation, out-of-control illegal immigration, out-of-control violent crime. The economy hasn’t snapped back to pre-pandemic conditions, and school lockdowns have left many children, especially minorities, much further behind.
Unlike Enoch Powell, neither septuagenarian president has suffered definitive failure yet. Both are seeking to run in 2024, despite evidence that large (though not overlapping) majorities want each out of the race.
Trump, who came within 42,000 votes of a second Electoral College majority in 2020, refuses to stop relitigating that contest, and any chance of another Trump term depends on a Democratic nominee being again found unacceptable.
Biden has careened far left on policy and, while accusing Trump of ending democracy, has watched his Justice Department elevate his visibility by searching Mar-a-Lago and his party leaders spend millions promoting Trump-ish candidates in Republican primaries.
Neither president’s career seems likely to end in success.
Their policy failures and those of leaders abroad seem to have another cause: an overreliance on the prescriptions of supposed experts, from economists to epidemiologists. Their models are formulated based on how the world used to work, or supposedly worked, but are out of line with how the world works now.
Some studies indicate that lockdowns prompted by epidemiologists’ models, based on deadlier diseases, produced minimal reductions in deaths but imposed high ancillary health, economic and educational costs. Similarly, economists recommended pumping large sums of money into the economy, though it has been damaged in ways far different from how it was in 20th-century recessions. Their prescriptions have failed to restore pre-pandemic workforce levels and have produced unpredicted inflation.
Political failure is the democratic process’ way of punishing mistakes. The rash of political careers ending in failure suggests that a relearning of the way the world works is needed, even more than sweeping flailing septuagenarians aside.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.