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Archive for Saturday, January 1, 2005

Year-end hindsight reveals misjudgments

January 1, 2005

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— Thanks to the Internet, I now receive chastisement for the errors and misjudgments committed in this column faster than ever before. So I have corrected some of the obvious factual mistakes promptly -- just to stem the flow of e-mails. For example, when I wrote back in August that "the (baby) boomers are now in their sixties," so many rushed to point out that the oldest of them -- those born in 1946 -- would be only 58, that I had to make amends at once.

So this year-end "goofs column" focuses on larger errors of judgment. I have no idea what made me believe back in March that congressional Republicans had "sobered up" about budget deficits and were ready to declare that "the fiscal binge is over." I should have known better. By May, I was writing about the phoniness of the House budget resolution and later, the collapse of the whole budget process. Some sobering-up!

The presidential campaign provided most of the opportunities for mistakes. I had a brief moment of perspicacity when I realized as early as a Jan. 7 column that Howard Dean was likely headed for "the gaffe of all gaffes, the one for which no repairs are possible." It came 12 days later in his incoherent shouting reaction to the Iowa caucus results.

Post-Dean, I started wrestling, as everyone did, with the puzzle of John Kerry's mind. All year long, I blew hot and cold on his chances. In early February, I thought he could mount "a serious challenge" to President Bush, but noted that "he has yet to demonstrate that he can expand the playing field" into Republican-leaning states.

By April, his vulnerability to charges of "flip-flop" had become obvious, and in mid-May I saw another weakness less commented on by others: His decision to emphasize his combat-honed toughness and compete with Bush for the title of "strong leader" threw him into battle on the president's turf -- not the place he wanted to be.

Still, I swooned -- absolutely swooned -- when he picked John Edwards for his ticket, but less than two weeks later had to admit that the choice had not moved his polls. "As a booster rocket for the ticket," I wrote, "(Edwards') fuel is mostly spent."

The biggest mistake I made was believing that Kerry had learned from Michael Dukakis' mistakes and would allow no attack to go "unanswered for more than a few hours." Instead, Kerry sat back day after day and allowed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to smear him -- without an answer.

I was not wrong in writing, against the grain, that Kerry's convention acceptance speech was a bomb and that the failure to indict Bush's record was a major omission in the bland convention program. But I believed Kerry did better in the fall, especially in the debates, and I thought Bush was vulnerable.

From the start of the year, in voter interviews and conversations with Republicans such as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, I heard anxiety about jobs and the economy -- an issue that Bush ultimately, to my surprise, managed to overcome. I thought and wrote that Iraq was a growing disaster, one compounded by Bush's reluctance to acknowledge error or to discipline those like Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet on whom he had relied. But he overcame that problem as well.

I understood his strengths -- his tenacity and the clarity of his moral and policy views. My final pre-election column said the Republicans "could be very vulnerable to conditions today," were it not for "the powerful emotional bond formed between millions of citizens and their president in those scary days after the terrorists struck New York and Washington."

That column also forecast that the lineup of states in the 2004 election would mirror that of 2000, except that "maybe New Hampshire will join the rest of the Northeast in voting Democratic ... (and) maybe New Mexico will tip to the GOP." Both did, but I missed Iowa switching narrowly to the Republicans.

But let me close on a brighter note: The Christmas column in 2003 expressed a wish for only one present: baseball in Washington, or, as I put it, "the sweet rapture of having a home team."

This Christmas, I found under the tree a neatly wrapped jersey of the Washington Nationals.

Happy the new year that promises such an Opening Day!

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