The Right To Be Wrong
Pundit accountability: Which predictions did I blow in 2010?
Last year the economist Bryan Caplan had a dream. "One day," he wrote, "people who refuse to bet on their statements will be viewed with greater contempt than those who bet and lose." He was talking about pundit accountability, a beautiful concept that will never be adopted, because no one wants to look stupid, and that's the inevitable result of any such plan. Guess how many jobs the stimulus will create—then eat your words when it falls short! Confidently predict where Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are hidden—and, well, get a book deal and a first printing of 500,000. But that's sort of the point: There is no real downside, at least in Washington, for being wrong.
In 2010, I wrote hundreds of thousands of words for multiple publications. I wrote more words, in 140-character increments, on Twitter. I said a bunch of stuff on television and radio and in speeches. How'd I do with my own predictions? Not terrible! Because I report more than pontificate, almost nothing I wrote or said was based on pure speculation. When I bobbled a prediction, it was because I was praying to the God of Sensational Headlines—usually the kind that end in question marks—or being goaded into Caplan-esque bets on Twitter. I developed a habit of predicting the final winners of elections on the night candidates were nominated, or the seats became open, such as "Congratulations, Sen. Richard Blumenthal" or "Congratulations, Sen. Joe Manchin." Fewer elections in 2011 means less of that and more attention to the big-picture stuff. Like this.
Jan. 5: The Scott Brown Dream
When I started calling around to see whether Scott Brown had a shot at Ted Kennedy's vacated Senate seat, no one bought it. "I think the odds are still against Brown in a way that they were not necessarily against [Doug] Hoffman," said Erick Erickson of RedState. "Brown could get elected in Mississippi, but not Massachusetts," said Mary Ann Marsh, a Massachusetts Democratic strategist. I was more bullish on Brown's chances, but I underestimated one thing: the degree to which voters in the state opposed the health care bill. "A September 2009 poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Globe," I wrote, "found voters supportive of the state's health care reform—a mandate that conservatives compare to the plan moving through Capitol Hill—by a 37-point margin." The poll wasn't wrong, but one reason Massachusetts opposed the federal law was that voters worried it would muck with their own plan. It was a preview of the backlashes to come, and it took me too long to realize that the bill was not going to get popular in a hurry.
March 23: Health Care Lawsuits? Good Luck!
The night that health care reform passed the House, I stood under a balcony and listened to Rep. Michele Bachmann promise full repeal by any means necessary. Since then, I've taken it seriously when Republicans come up with ways to undo Obamacare. But I was skeptical at first of the lawsuits filed by state attorneys general, aimed at repealing the mandate portion of the bill. "Ambitious Republican politicians are clambering on board with the idea of lawsuits to repeal the health care individual mandate," I wrote, "even though the chances of repeal are slim." Ken Cuccinelli was not listening to me.
April 16: D.C. Might Get a Vote in Congress
Charlie Brown's football game was less depressing than the perennial, doomed effort of Washington activists to get the district some congressional representation. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats—everyone expected some kind of compromise to get jammed through. For most of the year, the district's nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was confident that liberals would swallow a compromise bill that gave D.C. a vote while repealing the city's strict gun control laws. "We're expecting the long-dormant D.C. voting rights bill to rise again once Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., settles on gun-rights language that the city could handle," I wrote. Of course, as it always does, the deal fell apart. The district's best chance for representation—Democratic Congress, Democratic president—disappeared.
Oct. 1: Jason Chaffetz Will Run the Congressional Committee Overseeing the District of Columbia
Until December, this prediction was practically mundane. It was reporting what Chaffetz said would likely happen: Republicans would win control of Congress, and he would move up from ranking Republican to chairman of the committee that oversees the nation's capital. The problem was that Chaffetz, one of the stars of the GOP's 2008 class, was given a bigger assignment by Rep. Darrell Issa—oversight of TARP and Homeland Security—and the anti-gay marriage, pro-vouchers Chaffetz stopped scaring D.C. liberals so much.
Aug. 5: The Lamest Duck
In the summer and fall of the campaign season, Tea Partiers and Republican candidates warned that Democrats would use the final, lame duck session of Congress to pass all sorts of terrifying bills. Cap-and-trade! Card-check! Permanent tax increases! Immigration amnesty! Dogs and cats, living together, married in Massachusetts! Instead, I reported that "Republican aides I talked to admitted that the lame-duck session's agenda was likely to be non-controversial and would probably handle whatever routine business that the blundering 111th Congress couldn't finish in September." This was 90 percent right and 10 percent wrong. Nothing that Republicans warned about got to the floor. The tax cut compromise that passed was better for conservatives than the increase that would have occurred if no lame duck was held. But it was a busy session, far from bland.
April to October: The Saga of Joe Miller
I think I was the first Washington reporter to take seriously the insurgent campaign of a former magistrate and failed state Senate candidate running against Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. On April 29, I quoted Miller saying that he'd have a big endorsement "in the papers" the next week. The endorsement was from Todd Palin; later, his wife endorsed Miller. Instant Tea Party credibility. Then, as the primary date approached, I went wobbly. Miller was running a shoddy campaign, and polls said he'd lose. He won the primary. Fortunately for Murkowski, and for my credibility, he kept running a shoddy campaign. By October, I was calling him the "Incredible Shrinking Joe Miller," and today, finally, the state has certified the election for Murkowski.
And I'm outta here. I'll be back next year with a much shorter list. What did you get wrong in 2010? Send me your confessions, or put on a hairshirt and go into the comments.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Joe Miller and his wife by Eric Engman/Getty Images.