Op-Ed

A Beltway pundit's cloudy crystal ball

A wiser president, a more moderate GOP, and other 2013 predictions gone awry.

U.S. Capitol

A U.S. flag flies on top of the Capitol building at sunset in Washington, D.C.. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / December 12, 2013)

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 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.

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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.

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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.

In at least one instance, though, I was happy to be wrong. Early in the year, I wrote that we were headed toward another crisis over Iran's nuclear program, one that could lead to war. Instead, Iran elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who launched a charm offensive and sought to defuse the problem through negotiation. It's far from certain that the talks will produce an agreement, but talking is better than fighting.

My track record identifying early trends for the 2016 election already looked spotty, two years before the opening rounds. I identified Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as an up-and-coming GOP talent, but then he announced his support for comprehensive immigration reform, and conservatives denounced him. I described Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as "wacko like a fox," but then he helped lead the tea party's doomed charge into October's government shutdown. I owe foxes an apology. Nothing terrible has happened yet to a third GOP star I profiled, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but if my record holds, he should stay away from open windows. So should Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom I awarded the title of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

I did get some things right, though.

I realized early that the House Republicans were going to be difficult for Speaker John A. Boehner to manage (OK, that was easy). I predicted correctly that Boehner wouldn't try to negotiate with Obama again; instead, "he's going to concentrate on holding his party together."

Even before the calamitous launch of Obamacare, I warned that the healthcare law would remain the focus of political battle and might not be accepted as settled law for years.

And I was unfortunately right about Obama's inconstant foreign policy, especially in Syria, where the president's desire to push Bashar Assad out of power collided with his aversion to intervening in "somebody else's civil war."

"Obama's rhetoric tends to outrun his willingness to use U.S. power — and that's a problem, because it can lead to dangerous misunderstandings," I wrote. "He often sounds like his United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, who has championed the idea of humanitarian intervention. But he more often acts like (George H.W. Bush aide) Brent Scowcroft … who warned against unnecessary entanglements abroad."

The year taught one more lesson: Politics and world affairs aren't everything. Among readers, the most popular column I wrote was a tribute to my mother (and one-person focus group), Lois McManus, of Greenbrae, Calif. But even with my own mother, I couldn't get everything right. In the column about her, I reported that at the age of 87, she had decided to give her final piano concert. That's what she said at the time. Wrong again! She's 88 now — and practicing for another performance.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
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