SUBSCRIBE

MICHAEL A. COHEN

What I got wrong in 2017

Tom Brenner/New York Times

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster looks on as President Donald Trump holds a meeting at the White House in Washington, Nov. 20.

By  

Every year I try to take a few hours to look back on what I’ve written over the past 12 months and offer a mea culpa for all the things I got wrong. This year was both a bit tougher and a bit easier than years past. To the latter point, since I was so extravagantly wrong about the 2016 presidential election, I’ve made a point of offering fewer predictions about the future. So there weren’t as many glaring mistakes as in previous years.

What made grading my performance for 2017 that much tougher is that I wrote around 150 pieces this year, which is actually less than last year, but is still a ton of material to review and fact-check. It takes a while to review and fact-check them all. So instead, I’ll focus on a few general areas of wrongness.

Advertisement

On health care, I believed early on that Republicans would fail to repeal Obamacare, but I didn’t give the GOP enough credit for malevolence. In January I wrote, “Santa Claus, the Abominable Snowman, the Easter Bunny, the Loch Ness Monster . . . and the Republican Party’s replacement plan for Obamacare. What do all of these have in common? They don’t exist, and they never will.”

I was wrong. The GOP did draft an Obamacare replacement bill in both the House and the Senate. In March, I said, “Republicans will likely talk a big game on Obamacare repeal, but when the moment of truth comes, they will blink. Millions of Americans losing their health care coverage might not faze them, but potentially losing their jobs probably will.” Later that month I said that “when push comes to shove Republicans are simply unwilling and unable to walk the walk” on their anti-government rhetoric.

Not quite. The House of Representatives did ultimately vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, and in the Senate, if not for Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and McCain, repeal and replace would have passed there, too. Indeed, in this piece, I actually gave Nevada Senator Dean Heller some credit for helping put the brakes on Obamacare repeal. In the end, he voted for repeal.

The GOP’s failure on Obamacare led me to get way over my skis when it came to writing about the party’s legislative acumen. In July, I wrote a rather unfortunate column that argued, “The Republican Party no longer knows how to legislate.” I said that when it comes to “getting something done” in the US Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell “has few discernible skills.” Finally, I asserted that Republicans lack “the requisite skills to legislate and govern the country.”

This was the theme I went to often in 2017. In March, I expressed skepticism about the GOP’s ability to pass tax reform legislation: “If forced to rely exclusively on Republican votes in the Herculean task of reforming the tax system or passing an infrastructure bill — with the threat of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate looming — what reason is there to believe that the GOP will succeed?”

Advertisement

Later that month I said that “passing tax reform — Trump’s next big agenda item — will be as difficult (if not more) than repealing Obamacare” because of the party’s “complete lack of consensus.”

That argument simply did not hold up. The GOP did, of course, pass tax reform and showed that, in fact, Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues do have some legislative skills. Moreover, a column I wrote in November that criticized Republicans for including repeal of the individual mandate in their tax plan — and thus restarting another debate over health care — was way off the mark. The policy might have been bad, but it had little effect on public debates about the GOP tax bill.

There were other errors. In February, when H.R. McMaster was hired to be Trump’s national security advisor, I questioned whether he could succeed in turning around Trump’s terrible foreign policy. I got that right. But I gave McMaster too much credit. I wrote at the time, “Ideally McMaster would be able to clean out the National Security Council of the ideologues and former military officers who Flynn brought in and instead stock it with regional experts, well-versed on international politics. If he can’t, he’ll likely find himself an isolated beacon of sanity in a White House filled with ideologically driven mediocrities who have a very different — and far more destructive — agenda.”

The problem is that McMaster doesn’t appear to be a beacon of sanity. On issues like North Korea’s nuclear program and his apparent support for using military force against that nation, he’s part of the problem. And in the extent to which he’s publicly enabled and encouraged Trump’s worst foreign policy instincts he’s probably made things worse. On the other hand, back in January I said that Rex Tillerson would be a disastrous secretary of state, and, unfortunately, I nailed that one — though I have to say I underestimated how terrible he would be, and the extent to which he would do enduring damage to the State Department.

I’ve written a few pieces on the opioid epidemic this year, and in August I talked with Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, about a proposal during the Senate health care debate to spend $45 billion helping those with opioid addiction. I ascribed to him the argument that “it would cost, on average, $2 million per county in America to set up an opioid crisis center. So $45 billion would mean more than 2,000 centers where people suffering from opioid addition could walk in and receive treatment.”

That’s not even close to being mathematically correct. First of all, there are 3,000 counties in America, so I’m not sure where I came up with that line about 2,000 centers. Secondly, $2 million per county would be $6 billion. What I failed to mention is that the $45 billion price tag would cover most, though not all, of the staffing costs at these centers over a 10-year period. This was a pretty careless error of math and logic on my part.

When it comes to Trump, my track record has been stronger, but I’ve at times let my rhetoric get the better of me. We get it Michael: Trump is an unhinged, unstable narcissist. The horse is dead. Maybe give that language a rest. Same goes for my use of “non-bizarro,” which was a topical expression in the ’90s. Also, on several occasions, I’ve employed the term “treason” or “treasonous offenses” to describe some of Trump’s actions and those of his aides in regard to possible collusion with Russia.

Treason is a very specific act as laid out in the Constitution, and it’s probably a stretch to argue that Trump or his aides are guilty of such an offense. I’ll continue to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on Russia, but the treason language needs to go — unless some future revelation justifies it.

Part of why I do this job is because of the outrage I feel when watching this president and his administration. That I have a platform to weigh in on their transgressions and misdeeds is why I love this job and why I’m humbled by it. But sometimes I let my rhetoric get a bit too far ahead and I turn into a Web commenter rather than a columnist. Being a bit more measured would be a good lodestar for me in 2018.

There are probably more speculative errors and factual misrepresentations that I’ve missed in my review of the year that was, and if I come across others I will update them on my Twitter feed (@speechboy71). But the ones above are the most glaring and obvious. Rereading what I’ve written is at times gratifying, especially when I get things right, but it’s also a reminder that I make plenty of mistakes, and I can do better. My pledge to you for 2018 is that I’ll try to do just that.


Michael A Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.