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.