The end of the year is always a treacherous time for columnists, for we know that our readers expect us to tell them what is going to happen next year. And not unreasonably -- after all, we specialize in forecasts. But year-end prognostications are particularly likely to be remembered, since they tend to be sweeping.
So I have decided to limit my risk by concentrating on one particular set of events that is sure to happen (one way or another) in 2008: The presidential nominations of the two major parties, and the outcome of the general election in November. You are free to tear out this column and hold me responsible for my blunders one year from now. Those who live by the sword must expect to die by it.
Take the Democrats first. Just now there are two major contenders for the nomination -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- and one somewhat more remote possibility, John Edwards. The winner, it is important to remember, will be determined by the outcome of the various presidential primaries, and not by the polls that are so ubiquitous these days. On that basis, my money is still on Hillary. It is true that Obama has been narrowing her lead in state after state (according to those polls), and that part of this is owing to her own rather cold personality. But the flip side of that coin is that nobody seriously disputes her basic competence. She has the kind of fortitude and determination that are among the first requirements in a president.
Obama is a more attractive personality, and the fact that he is black is a plus in a candidate for the Democratic nomination. His problem is that he is relatively inexperienced (he only entered the Senate, his first federal office, in 2005) and looks it. The American people would have no problem at all electing a black president (Colin Powell would have made it look downright easy), but they aren't likely to abandon all other criteria in order to do so. And Obama simply needs more seasoning.
Under these circumstances, the Democrats simply don't need John Edwards -- which is in many ways a pity, since he is an attractive candidate. They will therefore, I conclude, opt for Hillary.
As for the Republicans, the race is practically a free-for-all. John McCain has staged a bit of a comeback recently, but hardly enough to make him the front-runner. Right now that title belongs to Rudy Giuliani, who has surprised me by his staying-power. Mitt Romney, however, is a formidable rival, with fewer rough edges than Giuliani. Conservative Republicans were allegedly dissatisfied with all of these choices, and that ought to have been a golden opportunity for Fred Thompson, whose conservative credentials are gilt-edged. But it hasn't proved to be one -- probably because he is simply too laid-back to try hard enough. All in all, therefore, I tend to think that Romney will get the GOP's eventual nod.
And where would that leave the outcome in November -- Hillary Clinton versus Mitt Romney? Here I must confess that, important as personalities are, I believe the chief factor in 2008 is likely to be the cyclical tug of war between the parties. In 2008, the Republicans will have held the White House for eight years, and controlled Congress for all but the last two of those eight. They have embroiled the country in a military venture in the Middle East that may well have been necessary, but that not even the most resolutely optimistic Republican could call popular. The economy is doing reasonably well, but there is no sign that voters credit Republican policies for this. Finally, neither Romney nor any other likely Republican nominee generates the kind of electricity that constitutes a winning argument on its own.
So I am inclined to think that the voters will yield to the instinct that tells them it's time for a change. Give the other guy (or gal) a chance.
Of course, unexpected events could render this calculation invalid. Another terrorist attack, along the lines of 9/11 or worse, occurring next September or October, could send the voters scurrying back to Republican protection from foreign foes. But failing that, it looks like "Madam President" to me.