McManus: A pundit's cloudy 2013 crystal ball

  • This artwork by M. Ryder relates to the new year.

To err is human. To err twice a week, you have to be a columnist.

In 2012, I cemented my reputation as a pundit by making some notable blunders — predicting, for example, that the presidential election would be too close to call. The race was "unpredictable," I wrote, "razor close." President Barack Obama won by a healthy margin, you'll recall. As for unpredictable, a vocal legion of political scientists pointed out (a little gracelessly, I thought) that they had predicted the result all along.

Surely, I consoled myself, 2013 would be better. A year without a presidential election seemed certain to provide fewer opportunities for errors that would require an end-of-the-year apology.

But as it turned out, my crystal ball went cloudy even before January was over. As Obama's inauguration neared, I wrote optimistically about how both sides in Washington had learned important lessons. After four years, I noted, the president was "a very different politician" than before: more realistic, more skilled and equipped with a resounding mandate from his election victory.

His opponents were wiser too, I opined. Chastened by defeat, "a smarter Republican Party" knew that it needed to change course to appeal to women, young people and Latinos.

I even ventured that a "grand bargain" — a deal that would raise taxes, cut spending and trim the federal deficit — was "more possible this year than any time since 2010."

"There's been gradual movement toward the center on the substance of the budget as well as the politics," I wrote. "Leaders on both sides know how to get to an agreement — or, more precisely, how not to get there — because they've tried so many routes before. Both sides in the fight are older, sadder and wiser." Obama must have agreed because he devoted several evenings to long dinners with Republican senators in pursuit of that elusive bargain.

Alas, we were both wrong. The bipartisan moment never came. A modest economic upturn made the deficit a little smaller, and the momentum toward a compromise collapsed.

By October, my "smarter Republican Party" had fallen back under the tea party's spell, blundering into a 16-day government shutdown and driving its standing in the polls to record lows.

And that skillful, seasoned president? His biggest legislative priorities — immigration reform and gun control — stalled. Even worse, he forgot to appoint a skilled manager to launch his most important domestic program, the Affordable Care Act, and failed to warn that his promise that everyone could keep their health insurance came with exceptions. Like Congress, Obama ended the year with some of his worst ratings ever.

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