Just say maybe

Let's make a little fun of the pundits. Let's include ourselves.

If you looked hard enough, you could find my prediction that Hillary Clinton had this thing locked up on the Democratic side and that Mike Huckabee hadn't a prayer in the Republican contest.

That kind of supposedly knowing insight is easy, as is the directly contradictory insight one can offer when the first batch starts to turn sour.

The fluidity and fickleness of modern American political punditry was driven home to me again just the other day. I got tossed in with other journalist types on a fast-paced talk radio show from Los Angeles. As I waited on the phone to get called on to hold forth some more, I listened to the others. All of us expounded on the compounding errors of Clinton's suddenly in-trouble campaign.

She should have presented a soft personal side earlier. She shouldn't have relied on experience when change turned out be the key. She shouldn't have staked her claim on invincibility because, well, she isn't. She shouldn't have banked on electability when, truth be told, polls showed her running more weakly against Republicans than Barack Obama or even John Edwards.

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes -- what was the woman thinking?

It took me back a few months to a presentation at the Clinton School of Public Service by those lofty juggernauts among political journalists, Mark Halperin and John Harris. It was Halperin who, quite reasonably, it seemed to me, said that Hillary was the clear favorite because she was smart and disciplined, as was her campaign, and that he couldn't imagine for a second that she'd make the kinds of missteps that seemed to have ruined John McCain on the Republican side.

Ditto, I pundited.

Look, we can say these are snapshots. We can say we were right at the time. We can say things change. And we're probably right. But we should acknowledge it's easier to appear sagacious when your wisdom is flexible and compartmentalized for different applications according to circumstances.

Maybe Hillary was vulnerable all along. Maybe she was too defined by years in the public eye to soften her image no matter whether she tried it in the beginning or now.

Maybe you simply cannot be a longtime insider and synchronize yourself with the prevailing mood for dramatic change sweeping the tiny universe represented by Iowa caucus-goers.

Maybe inevitability and electability were your best gambits, and maybe, darnit, those simply didn't offer much currency right now in those two peculiar political states: Iowa, with no black vote to speak of, and New Hampshire, with its rugged Yankee independence and crossover voting.

Maybe Clinton is still likely to win Iowa, because Democratic establishment caucus-goers won't have the nerve to stand up publicly, as required by the format, against her and her husband's legacy.

Maybe she'll avail herself of a fire wall in that early primary in South Carolina. There, for the first time, significant numbers of African-American voters, vital to the success of any Clinton political endeavor since Bill's first office-seeking foray in Arkansas in the mid-1970s, will get their say.

Maybe, after that, she could go on to victory in that spectacle of Feb. 5 that essentially will function as a nationwide primary. Remember, at last report she still had a double-digit lead nationwide.

Maybe she'll present the Comeback Kid the Sequel, emerging stronger than if she'd won it easily.

That would present a worthy story line laced with irony: A white woman defeats an insurgent African-American opponent by piling up large African-American majorities.

If it works out like that, I'll say I told you so. If it doesn't, I'll explain that authoritatively as well.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.