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Oops! That was the year that wasn't

Posted: January 1, 2012 - 1:05am

A year ago, soon after the Tunisian uprising, I demonstrated my powers of prediction in a column about the democracy movement in the Arab world. The revolution in Tunisia, I wrote, “arose from local circumstances that don’t foretell what will happen anywhere else.” Three weeks later, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fell, and the Arab Spring was in full bloom.

This brings me to the subject of today’s column: A confession of my year’s errors and omissions (along with a mention of one or two things I got right).

It was Rick Perry who led me astray in domestic politics. If it hadn’t been for the Texas governor, I might have had a pretty good year. But I surrendered to the temptation to try to pick a winner early in the Republican presidential nomination saga — way back in August.

Back then, Perry looked as if he had it all. He was the nation’s longest-serving governor, presiding over a state with enviable job growth. He was a fearsomely successful politician who had won many tough elections. Every Texas pundit I consulted agreed: Perry was the real deal.

“There’s been a hole on the right-hand side of the Republican field, and Perry appears to fit right into it,” I wrote confidently in August.

“His rawboned Texas rhetoric, railing against Washington’s ‘interference’ in the affairs of small town America, may frighten voters in the center, but it’s right in tune with the tea party. ... If Rick Perry rises to the occasion, we might be looking at a two-man race.”

I certainly got the “if” part right. Perry didn’t rise to the occasion. The six debates from Sept. 7 to Nov. 9 were his undoing. First he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme; then, defending in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, he derided anyone who disagreed as “heartless”; and, in a fatal self-inflicted wound, he couldn’t remember the name of one of the three federal cabinet departments he wanted to abolish.

“Oops,” the governor said in explaining his lapse.

That’s my excuse too. How was I to know this savvy politician would show up at national debates so ill-prepared for the tough questions he would face?

And Perry wasn’t the only object of my misguided enthusiasm. If you read my column back in March, you might have thought that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (remember him?) was the candidate to watch.

Pawlenty “has built a solid following among conservatives in Iowa,” I wrote, only a few months before he bombed in the Iowa straw poll. (In my defense, I did note, presciently, that he was also “colorless and charisma-free.”)

After Pawlenty faded, I placed a bet on another conservative hope, Rep. Michele Bachmann. “Don’t underestimate her,” I counseled in June. “She’s hard-core, but she’s no flake.” That turned out to be only about half right.

I was wholly right about at least one thing: that Newt Gingrich would turn out to be one of the most interesting candidates in the race.

“He’ll make the debates sharper,” I predicted in May. “He may force other candidates who seek safety in ambiguity into more clarity.”

Still, I didn’t expect him to be as big a challenge to Romney as he now appears to be.

Nor did I expect Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to hold a chance of winning in Iowa’s caucuses. I’m still willing, however, to go out on a limb and say that Paul won’t win the nomination.

Back in Washington, my home turf, I underestimated the determination of tea party Republicans to dig in their heels and resist compromises on the federal budget. And I overestimated House Speaker John A. Boehner’s ability to bring his conservative members into line behind the deals he kept trying to cut.

“On the easy decisions — short-term spending and the debt ceiling — the freshmen are gradually being housebroken,” I wrote in March. “Many of them now seem open to compromises, as long as they include sizable spending cuts. And they’ve largely accepted Boehner’s argument that they shouldn’t block an increase in the nation’s borrowing power.”

Wrong! As we now know, the tea party members rebelled against Boehner — several times — and held the debt ceiling hostage all the way until August.

What else did I get right? I forecast that Sarah Palin wouldn’t run. And I bravely predicted that Donald Trump, if he ran, wouldn’t win — a judgment that drew a scrawled warning from Trump, via fax, that I would soon eat my words.

That ought to count for something.

The lesson, for readers, is easy: Never believe predictions — especially about the future, especially from pundits, and especially about elections that are months away.

With that off my chest, here’s this week’s forecast: Romney’s going to win the Republican nomination. He might even clinch it by the Florida primary on Jan. 31. Conservatives who grumbled about him in 2011 will unite behind him in 2012. And then, in November, either Romney or President Barack Obama will win a very close election. You can take it to the bank.

• Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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