Everything I Got Wrong This Year

What I did and didn’t see coming.

Ken Cuccinelli, not the next Virginia governor.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

At the close of my previous annual Pundit Audit, I made a prediction for 2013. Combing through a year’s worth of articles and blog posts and typos (I left “butb” in a headline?) is a real jackhammer to the ego, and I needed something to feel perspicacious about. So I confidently guessed that 2013 would be marked by “constant fiscal showdowns” and that “Democrats might reform the filibuster.”

Hey, not bad! Neither risky nor wrong. This was a year full of good-enough, easy-10 calls, thanks in large part to a Congress and president that didn’t change much after 2012. The main lesson I took from the 2012 election was that data was mostly immune to the tempests that the media obsessed over. The main lesson I took from 2011 was that the most likely outcome in any congressional negotiation or legislative push was “nothing.”

And so, Democrats undid part of the filibuster because they worried more about courts undoing their legislation than about a Senate race turning on something as obscure as cloture rules. Immigration reform and gun safety sputtered because John Boehner’s Republicans saw no upside in passing them. Had I spent 2013 robotically repeating those truths, I’d have been fine. Instead, I said all this.

Jan. 3: The new Congress will be more reasonable than old one. Look, I hate to invoke the Context Fairy this early, but this prediction wasn’t totally wrong. The first stories about the new members of Congress focused disproportionately on the Ted Yohos and Ted Cruzes, the most ideologically rigid and most quotable. I pointed out that most of the incoming class actually had more experience than the median Class of 2010 member. “Congress’s less conservative Republicans sounded optimistic,” I wrote—and they did! They also largely went along with the first government shutdown in 17 years. But when they collapsed, they collapsed—they went along with a budget deal that punted on the entitlement reform that the more conservative members had wanted for years.

Feb. 14: Ken Cuccinelli will probably become governor of Virginia. Man cannot live on data alone. I surmised that Cuccinelli, the state’s right-wing attorney general who’d alienated scores of moderates in his party, was still likely to beat Terry McAuliffe. “The party that holds the White House typically loses the off-year elections,” I wrote. Never do that, kids! History does not prescribe any outcome in a changing state. My less-risible argument was that an off-year election would see a drop-off on nonwhite votes, hurting the Democrats. That happened, but at a far lower rate than had happened in previous off-year races.

My mind changed about Cuccinelli a few months later. He’d planned to run down McAuliffe on ethics. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s unexpected gifts scandal shattered that plan; Cuccinelli never came up with a better one. As soon as the Republicans started releasing fake polls to make fun of all the surveys that showed them losing, I assumed they’d lose. Then the campaign ended, and I dramatically overestimated how much McAuliffe would win by. Oh, well.

April 9: The National Rifle Association might lose the gun-safety battle. Here I made two mistakes: Falling for spin and trying too hard to rebut conventional wisdom. Anyone who looked at the makeup of the House of Representatives could have said, “Oh, yeah, they won’t buck the NRA.” But the gun lobby’s initial response to the Newtown, Conn., shootings was so callous that I failed to understand the long game. So what if their “school safety” program was sold with a lie about Sasha and Malia Obama going to a fortified school? The NRA wanted to throttle legislation and sell more guns, and so it did.

I bought in to the gun-safety movement’s theory that the NRA would cede just enough ground to allow the passage of a small bill. “The NRA represents an industry that will lose money if a ban on high capacity magazines goes through,” I wrote, channeling and describing the Bloombergian line of thinking. In order to convince reporters that the failure of an assault-weapons ban was not a loss—that it was inevitable, a way to tee up another more popular bill—the gun-safety side gave away its strategy. Even when Ted Cruz blundered and tried to filibuster the start of debate, I should have realized that something so hobbled in a Democratic Senate wouldn’t ever pass the House. That was what happened with immigration reform, and I didn’t bungle that prediction.

April 23: Brian Schweitzer will run for Senate and save the Democrats. Come on, this was hardly my fault. In February, the just-departed governor of Montana was pleased with a poll giving him the lead in a possible 2014 Senate race and shared the results on Facebook. Who does that? Someone who might run for Senate, that’s who. When Sen. Max Baucus announced his retirement, I wrote that Schweitzer, “the bolo-tie-and-jeans wearing pro-coal populist,” was the favored candidate to replace him. Still true. Schweitzer shocked the party by passing on the race.

July 7: Rand Paul won’t fire a neo-Confederate staffer. I thought I understood the Paul family. I’d covered Ron Paul’s two presidential campaigns and seen the utter contempt he had for questions about his unsavory associates. I’d talked to Rand Paul about those stories—newsletters published under the Paul name, donations from a white supremacist—and knew he agreed. “He considers these questions preposterous because Paul knows he’s not a racist,” I wrote. “Why do white supremacists or Southern avengers like him so much? Well, they’re misled—lucky enough, they’ve found Paul-style libertarianism, and they will discover that color-blind politics is a far better use of their time.”

All of that led me to write that Paul would retain Jack Hunter, an author whose nom de Internet (and radio) was the Southern Avenger, after the Washington Free Beacon found Hunter’s old pro-Confederacy quotes. I was wrong. Hunter resigned after the controversy faded.

Sep. 3: Obama can still win a vote to strike Syria. This one stings, then burns, then stings again. By happenstance, I was in London for book research when Parliament voted down a resolution that would have allowed airstrikes on Syria. The U.K. press covered the vote like a fait accompli—there were maps in the morning newspapers about likely targets—until the coalition government lost the vote. Why did I return to Washington and think it would be any different? Great question, especially because I never adequately explained how Obama could win the Senate vote. “Give the Republicans enough room to condemn Obama,” I suggested, “give the Democrats enough assurances that this is a humanitarian mission—oh, be sure to compare Assad to Hitler and failure to bomb to ‘appeasement,’ just so the message about Israel isn’t missed—and the resolution begins to look passable.” Uh-huh.

Those were my biggest whiffs of the year. Some stories that I remembered getting wrong looked better when I pulled them up. Way back in July I suggested that a government shutdown wouldn’t “scare the left” because a fight like that, over Obamacare, would squelch the “grand bargain” that really scared them. What do you know, it did. I only ever wrote about the Bob Menendez “hooker” story to make fun of its flimsiness; I wrote about the 60 Minutes report on Benghazi only to cover what Republicans would do with the “revelations.”

But why did those flawed stories run? The incentives for running with a big story are often greater than the disincentives of getting it wrong. Sure, Lara Logan was given a furlough of shame when she screwed up. But the Daily Caller editor and reporter who ran with the bogus Menendez story got headhunted for bigger jobs at Breitbart.com and the Daily Mail. And surely no pundit who said this would be the year of the Grand Bargain or immigration reform is spending this Christmas looking for new work. It’s easy to make bad calls and easy to get away with it. But let’s try not to do it.