Politics & Policy

What I Got Wrong

On several key issues, it wasn’t such a bad year for conservatives after all.

It is a rare and happy day on which I shed my well-worn Eeyore outfit and clothe myself instead in optimism and in buoyancy, but today is one of those days. Having recently read the self-audits that a handful of my fellow writers have been brave enough to undertake, I cast a cold eye over my own output during the past twelve months, and I was rather struck that the vast majority of the things that I got wrong were things that I would have liked to have got wrong. That is to say that my erroneous predictions were more or less the product of too much reflexive gloom rather than of too much confidence. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

I have my fair share of bleak, pyrrhic I-told-you-so’s, of course. I argued from the outset that the shutdown would be a futile disaster that would inevitably distract from Obamacare. It was, and it did. I predicted ruefully that Terry McAuliffe would become the next governor of Virginia. He did. I had a horrible feeling that the Supreme Court would make up a lot of abject nonsense about gay marriage and the Constitution. It duly obliged me. (I am in favor of gay marriage, but that is a separate question from those legal opinions.) And yet, all told, there was much to cheer: a series of pleasant surprises that I singularly failed to see coming.

The year 2013 began with emotions running high. On the first day of January, the abomination at Sandy Hook was only 17 days in the past, the president was promising action, and the polling showed that Americans were open to passing at least some new federal laws. The talk of a “sea change” was, at its best, premature, and, at its worst, irresponsible — this was best shown, perhaps, by the fact that the politician who promised such a change, Alaskan senator Mark Begich, ended up voting against all federal gun-control legislation. Nevertheless, knee-jerk reactions being common in politics — and futile rituals intended to appease the public even more so — I thought that on balance we would see something hit Obama’s desk.

I wrote in January that

it is possible that the universal background check provision goes through Congress. Possible. (An “assault weapons” ban certainly won’t, and nor will serious limits on magazine size.) But it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if the entire proposal collapsed into nothing and was forgotten, folded quietly and tucked beneath the carpet in favor of the fight over immigration or spending.

This was my most skeptical moment. As the incessantly mawkish presidential mourning tour continued in earnest and I hammered away at the proposals that were taking shape, I started to believe that, on a wave of contrived and naïve emotion, some version of a background-check bill might squeak through. Or at least some token would be passed into law. Thankfully, nothing did, and the public quickly came to its senses on the question. I’m inordinately glad that I was wrong. I wish I had also been wrong about New York, Connecticut, Maryland, California, and Colorado — all of which passed drastic gun-control measures in Newtown’s wake.

Staying with guns, here I feel obliged here to make a confession: I honestly couldn’t imagine the Colorado recalls succeeding. I never wrote anything to that effect, preferring to cover the major players without comment, but the effort privately struck me as being unlikely to succeed. Advocates were outspent and outgunned, and, having seen what as much as anything else was a rejection of the recall process in Wisconsin in 2012, I anticipated that Coloradans would refuse to indulge their initiatives too. I got it wrong. Not only did voters in conservative-leaning Colorado Springs remove their senator — also the president of the state senate — but in deeply Democratic Pueblo an apolitical 29-year-old plumber orchestrated a successful grassroots campaign that will go down in history. Toward the end of the year, in a third recall that I openly argued was a “bridge too far,” Senator Evie Hudak elected to resign rather than take her chances at the ballot box. I was wrong — three times. I failed to see coming a great story about people standing up for their most basic rights. This was a salutary lesson to those who would dismiss the power of citizen activism.

Like an awful lot of other people, I thought that the Republican party would respond to its defeat in 2012 by jumping blindly toward immigration reform and passing whatever the Democrats said was necessary. The Senate’s immigration bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation that have been passed in recent years, failing as it does to address the problem, vastly expanding legal immigration of low-skilled workers, and making the structural economic problems of the United States worse, not better. I never quite thought that the Senate’s immigration bill would be passed into law as is, but I am genuinely surprised that we have emerged from 2013 without there having been a House–Senate conference that allowed the president to sign something.

In a sense, my immigration mistake is inextricable from another of my mistakes, that being that I failed to predict the president would implode so dramatically. My opposition to Obamacare has always been primarily an issue of constitutional principle: Put simply, I don’t want the federal government mandating the purchase of private products, and nor do I think that it is its role to provide health care or health insurance to anyone. Obamacare’s promises never added up, of course. Having lived under government-run medicine for 26 years, I am aware of what happens to the quality of care and to the political culture when the state becomes responsible for its citizens’ medical issues. But I am also aware that governments can get away with providing terrible service almost indefinitely because (a) they have the money and the guns and (b) democratic systems tend to favor the status quo, so once a system is in place people are generally unwilling to change it.

I can’t say that I thought Obamacare was going to “work,” nor that it was going to last. Conservatives’ practical objections always struck me as obviously true, and the president’s claims as obvious lies. Still, I did think that Obama’s fundamental calculation — that he just needed to override the opposition of the public for long enough to vigorously implement his law, and then it would be impossible to reform — was a smart one, and, frankly, the one that I would have made had I been in his position. I must confess that I have been utterly astonished at what has happened since October 1. Not having much respect or time for governments, I anticipated some trouble. But the unending, extraordinary, rollicking incompetence of the Obama administration has been beyond my wildest dreams — and I am someone who has gone on record saying that I want the initiative to fail hard. It is still possible that Obamacare will “work” — at least in the sense that it doesn’t go away. I’m really not sure what is going to happen. But did I think we’d be here by January 1 of 2014? Absolutely not.

Syria surprised me, too. As is his way, the president behaved like James II — all but invoking the Divine Right of Kings — and he lied, too, about what he had said in the past. That much was predictable. But the scale of the domestic opposition was not. At one point, 89 percent of Americans opposed the White House’s position, and the Left and the Right were collaborating in an attempt to get Congress to stop it! John Kerry stood up and made a speech that could have been written by Donald Rumsfeld, while all but the most committed hawks sounded the alarm. It was farcical. Before it all kicked off, I said repeatedly on television that Obama was “not interested” in Syria and would vacillate about his “red line” until the issue went away. I was wrong. This is why, as a rule, I stay away from foreign policy, about which I know very little.

My final mistake relates in part to the future: I thought that Hillary Clinton would go from strength to strength. In fact, the opposite appears to be happening. There is a lot of time before 2016, yes, and I would certainly like it if the media could behave as if they knew that. Still, when asked, I have tended to buy into the notion that Clinton was, if not inevitable, at least in a strong position. At the start of the year, she looked that way, leaving office with a 56–25 approval rating, joining Twitter to fawning applause, and establishing herself as a political figure once more. By October 31, however, Clinton had dropped to 46 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable. And she’s still dropping. YouGov’s research suggests that her decline throughout the year might well be related to the events in Benghazi. (That was another mistake of mine — the conviction that the Benghazi story would never take off.):

The shift in May suggests that negative press surrounding the tragic September 11, 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, may have impacted views about Clinton and her tenure at the State Department.

Regardless of whether she recovers her standing with the public at large, we’ll get the Hillarycult, of course. That’s what the Left does now and what it will continue to do until the last drop of “Let’s Make History” has been exhausted. Still, it is by no means guaranteed that Hillary will be the one standing in front of those Greek columns in 2016, and I have probably been too horrified by the idea to notice that others don’t seem to like her either.

“Cheer up,” the British like to say to frowning friends. “After all, it might never happen.” This year, I might ask them to invert their counsel, for my greatest moments of cheer have come when, despite my earnest predictions and instincts to the contrary, “it” did happen. So, here’s a raised glass — to an equally imprecise 2014, and to the mistakes that we all, inevitably, make. For all the right reasons, of course.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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