ROSS DOUTHAT

Confessions of a mistaken columnist

I was wrong about Boehner, the pope and Syria, but infallibility awaits in 2014


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In ancient Sanskrit, the word “pundit” meant “wise man” or “religious sage.” In modern English, it means “often wrong, rarely accountable.” There are ways that those of us who scribble about politics can avoid living down to that reputation — by keeping our predictions vague (it worked for Nostradamus), by sticking to sure things (I told you Herman Cain wouldn’t be elected president) or by deploying weasel words like “it’s possible that …” at every opportunity. But time, chance and fallibility eventually make false prophets of us all.

Still, where wisdom fails, self-criticism is useful. For the last four years, David Weigel, a political writer for the online magazine Slate, has subjected himself to a “pundit audit,” looking back on his worst predictions and explaining what went wrong. It’s a good idea, and so I’m stealing it this week and highlighting my three biggest errors of 2013 before the year is shown the door.

1. In Boehner I trusted. I kicked off last January with a column hailing John Boehner, the much-maligned speaker of the House, as an “American hero” who deserved more credit than he was getting for averting shutdowns, debt--ceiling debacles and a fiscal cliff-jump in 2011 and 2012. Looking ahead to another round of budget battles, I suggested Americans should be grateful that “the speaker who prevented dysfunction from producing disaster last time is around to try again.”

The speaker tried again, but this time he failed, first getting roundly outmaneuvered by Ted Cruz and then accepting an awesomely self-destructive shutdown in the hopes that it would break his party’s fever.

There are things to be said in Mr. Boehner’s defense, and still-worse scenarios that his acceptance of the shutdown may have helped avoid. But he still presided over an epic debacle, which would have defined the year in politics if the Obamacare rollout hadn’t come along to save Republicans from themselves. A year ago, I expected the speaker to avoid that kind of disaster. I was wrong.

2. I underestimated Pope Francis — or misread the media. In columns pegged to Pope Benedict’s unexpected retirement and Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy, I made two claims: first, that a new “Catholic moment” in American life could “only be made by Americans themselves,” and second, that the new pope’s “evocative name” and “humble posture” wouldn’t be sufficient to repair the church’s image absent concrete steps to extend accountability for the sex-abuse scandal to the upper reaches of the hierarchy.

Given the subsequent media fascination with Francis, my attempt to minimize the papacy’s importance in American religious life may have been premature. More important, I was entirely wrong about the Vatican’s image being inextricably tied to the legacy of the sex-abuse crisis. To date, the new pope has done much less than the underappreciated Benedict on that front, but nobody in the Western press seems to care: Even as American bishops continue to mishandle abuse cases, Francis’ charisma, asceticism and inclusivity have reversed a decade of bad press for Catholicism.

In a way, I’m grateful to have been wrong, since the message and mission of the church deserve as much attention as the continuing blindness of some bishops. But that blindness still needs to be addressed, and it’s troubling, and telling, that the media would give a more liberal-seeming pope a pass on an issue they hammered his predecessor on at every opportunity.

3. I made too much of the Syria debate. When it looked as if the White House might lose a vote authorizing a bombing campaign against Bashar Assad, I argued that a congressional defeat would “basically finish off” President Barack Obama “as a credible actor on the world stage,” putting us on “a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.”

This prediction was made moot when Vladimir Putin offered the White House a face-saving way out. But even though the fateful vote never took place, my apocalyptic tone was overwrought. Not that the Syria debate wasn’t bad for the administration’s credibility. But in hindsight I’m not sure a lost vote would have made the damage that much worse.

One bad habit of pundits is to perpetually look for Grand Turning Points, moments after which Nothing Is the Same, to impose an artificial order on the messiness of political reality. Such moments sometimes exist: the botched Obamacare rollout, for instance, still feels like a potentially crucial inflection point for the president’s domestic credibility. But where White House foreign policy is concerned, the Syria resolution debate looks smaller the further it recedes.

Here endeth the self--criticism. Happy almost-New Year, and here’s to an infallible 2014.

Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.



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