Welcome back to my annual outright theft of The McLaughlin Group's awards categories for the past year in politics. What's that? We're sorry, but out lawyers insist we instead use the phrase "my annual legally-allowable constitutionally-protected parody" instead. So sorry. For those of you who missed it, Part 1 of this column ran last week, on Christmas.
Which brings up a point. One of the categories today is "Worst Idea," and I have to say on a very personal level that "writing these columns on Christmas and New Year's Day" was my worst idea of the year. Thankfully, this calendar coincidence won't happen again for a number of years, because it is too much work for what is supposed to be a holiday!
Hung-over grumblings aside, though, let's get to it.
Oh, wait, before we do, I'd like to highlight two other "year end" lists that are hilarious and worth reading: Dave Barry's "Lowlights of a Downer Year," and Tom Tomorrow's "The Year In Crazy" cartoon wrapup of the year (in two parts -- "Part the First" and "Part the Second"). Both of these comic geniuses will get you laughing, and really, what better way is there to start a new year?
And, indeed, what better way to start the year than the traditional Plugging Of Past Columns? Here are my picks for previous years' awards, for reference purposes, and then we'll jump right into handing out this year's awards.
Destined For Political Stardom
I'm going to give this to Senator Al Franken, just because.
Franken has one thing going for him that most freshman senators do not: the media is guaranteed to run any funny soundbite, quip, or amusing situation coming from Franken. Whether he's questioning someone in a committee on what's in the Constitution, or gleefully gavelling Joe Lieberman to silence, it's a safe bet that you'll see it later on the evening news. Most junior politicians would give their eyeteeth for that type of media attention, which Franken earned before he ever became a politician. With this advantage, Franken could become a true star in the Democratic firmament. Oh, pardon me, in the "Democratic-Farmer-Labor" firmament... my apologies to the electorate of the great state of Minnesota.
It will take Franken some time to acquire enough senatorial power to truly be seen as a leader in the Senate, but my guess is that it we'll all have a delightful time watching him, in the meantime.
Destined For Political Oblivion
Last year, I gave the previous award to Bobby Jindal. This year, he qualifies for the "oblivion" award -- a rather dramatic rise and fall, which can be linked to his stunningly bad response to Barack Obama's "Don't Call It The State Of The Union, Dammit" speech at the beginning of last year. Jindal may be a hero to every citizen who abhors wasting valuable government money monitoring volcanoes, but that's actually a pretty small group.
But, in the end, Jindal could recover. It was only one bad speech, after all. So he misses out on the Destined For Political Oblivion for this year, at least.
While there were many names which could have qualified for a "If I Ran The Universe, They Would Be Destined For Political Oblivion" award, we have to cast a more discerning eye at the list than just who I want to be obliviated, and rather look at who I think will sink to the oblivious depths. So to speak.
Joe Lieberman, for instance. Boy, it'd be great to see the citizens of Connecticut rise up, tar and feather ol' Joe, and run him out of the state on a rail... but the citizens of the Nutmeg State are actually a lot more polite and well-behaved than that (Don't believe me? Go check it out sometime. Not exactly the first state you'd think of when you think of riotous behavior.).
Michele Bachmann is another name I'd like to see fade in 2010. But she seems to be able to say just about any crazy thing she likes without harming her chances for getting re-elected, so I am (sadly) not very confident that political oblivion awaits Bachmann any time soon.
Rahm Emanuel is another name that springs to mind. When a president (any president) sees their poll numbers go below about 40 percent approval, they often try to get back in the public's good graces by tossing someone from their administration overboard, and blaming all the woes on the poor sap. If this scenario were to play out with Obama, it's hard to think of anyone else who would fit the bill so nicely. The hard Left is already seriously annoyed with Emanuel, and consider him a triangulator of the worst Clintonian type. Emanuel was sold as a "Chicago-style" politician who would break some heads in Congress to jam through Obama's agenda. This is not exactly how things are playing out, to put it mildly. Emanuel is now seen as the "Compromiser In Chief" who gives away the keys to the store of Democratic ideals before the fight even begins.
But my educated guess is that if Rahm were to go, it would probably happen next year, around this time. If Democrats lose big in the midterms, and if Obama's poll numbers continue their slide this year, then Obama himself might be making a few mid-course corrections right about this time next year. So we'll save Rahm for next year, in this award category.
And the last name on the runners-up list is none other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who may follow in Tom Daschle's footsteps by not losing power in the Senate, but rather losing his Senate seat itself. Harry faces a very tough race in Nevada this year, and may get voted out by his own constituents.
But the real winner of Destined For Political Oblivion this year is an absolute lock -- no guesswork required. Senator Roland Burris, the man scandalously chosen as Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate, will not be coming back. He has already announced he won't be running for election (not, note, "re-election"), which means we will thankfully not be seeing him around the hallowed halls of Congress much longer.
Interestingly, this has somewhat freed the man up to say what he thinks, since he isn't concerned with trying to win over voters any more. He was actually a strong voice, at the very end, for much stronger reforms in the healthcare legislation. Burris may give us more such interesting stances before he leaves, so he does bear watching before his inevitable political oblivion this time next year.
Best Political Theater
While Franken telling Lieberman to, basically, "sit down and shut up" was indeed enjoyable, it didn't really rise to the level of Best Political Theater.
I'm going to give this award out to two sides of a very fractious subject: healthcare reform. From the single-payer side of things, we have a bunch of doctors getting arrested. When Senator Max Baucus held hearings, back in the spring, on what to do to reform healthcare, he invited dozens of people to speak. He pointedly did not invite anyone favoring a single-payer approach. They showed up anyway. Since they were making a ruckus, Baucus had them arrested and hustled from the room.
Nothing, it seems to me, was more emblematic of how the single-payer advocates were treated by Democrats in this debate than arresting doctors who just wanted to have their idea heard. Baucus (and quite a few other Democrats) simply did not want to hear what they had to say, in any way, shape, or form.
On the other side of things (are you sitting down for this?) a joint award for Best Political Theater goes to the Tea Parties and last summer's town hall disrupters. Because, by my definition, "political theater" is using some sort of gimmickry to interest a bored media to cover your political point and, by doing so (this is key), appearing to have much stronger and broader support than your group actually has.
The Tea Party folks fit this bill. Which is why they get a "Best" -- not because I believe anything they had to say, but for sheer media manipulation. Now, it must be admitted, Fox was pathetically easy to manipulate on this one. In fact, there was a real question who was the cart and who was the horse, between Fox and the Tea Party folks. But remember also that the rest of the media slavishly followed the yappings of this group as well. And they went, from nothing but an idea to protest all things Obama on "Tax Day" last year, to perhaps emerging as an actual political party -- all in the space of a few months. That's pretty impressive, I have to admit, even if they did get a whopping among of "fake grassroots" seed money along the way.
But, especially for the long hot summer of town halls, the Tea Party folks have (I have to begrudgingly admit) earned their Best Political Theater award.
Worst Political Theater
The Worst Political Theater award is easy, this year. I'm not even going to dignify him by repeating his name here. Because the entire award rationale is fully self-explanatory in the two words by which it qualified:
Worst Political Scandal
There were plenty of minor scandals which come to mind -- gate-crashers at the White House and that sort of thing. And there were plenty of celebrity scandals as well (Tiger Woods and David Letterman, for instance), but they weren't really all that "political."
To be even-handed here, I'm going to give out an award to the Left and the Right in this category. On the Left, we had the ACORN scandal, which was arguably blown incredibly out of proportion, but also was so damaging to the organization that I fully expect them to decide at some point to change their organization's name, regroup under a new banner, and attempt to win back donors as a result.
Over on the Right, we have Mark Sanford, who has entered a new phrase into the political vernacular (and the larger zeitgeist itself): "hiking the Appalachian Trail." This will forever more be defined as: an amusing euphemism for "taking some time off to boink my girlfriend," especially if said boinking takes place on another continent, the person being spoken of is from South Carolina, or he (or she) currently occupies a governor's office.
Most Underreported Story
There are plenty of big subjects in this category -- Iraq, for instance. The media just plumb forgot about this particular war during the past year. The British investigation of how they were talked into going to war in Iraq is another big one that is just starting (and will be utterly ignored by the media here in America). A good case can be made for "any bipartisan law passing Congress" (yes, there have been a few, where a significant number of Republicans have voted with most Democrats -- but it doesn't easily fit the media storyline, so they are simply not covered).
But I'm going to get hyper-specific here and say that the most underreported story of the year was the Supreme Court allowing the state court's ruling in the case Jaynes v. Virginia to stand. This will have far-reaching effects which, thankfully, nobody has really figured out yet. The U.S. Supreme Court essentially affirmed the Virginia court's ruling that spam -- email that gets sent to you anonymously with a fake return address -- is a constitutionally-protected First Amendment "protected speech" category, when the subject of the email is political or religious in nature. Even attempting to uncover the sender of "Obama is a secret Muslim" emails (for instance) is illegally infringing on the rights of the sender to remain anonymous. Scurrilous political smears clogging cyberspace are now everyone's right -- and were specifically put on the same level in the case's decision as the writers of The Federalist Papers (published anonymously, at the time).
I've been trying to point out for a while now what the inevitable outcome of this decision is going to be, but nobody's going to notice until some evil political operators figure it out and start flooding the online universe with political manure, each and every campaign season.
Most Overreported Story
Hoo boy. "Pretty much everything the mainstream media obsessed over" is my initial response, but then I have that response every year.
I narrow it down each year by immediately ignoring all celebrity stories, as I do throughout the year itself, so sorry to all the Michael Jackson fans out there.
A very special award is given this year to NBC, for treating "the weather" as a crucial story which simply must be headlined each and every night on the evening news. I'm not talking about just the biggies, either (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.). I'm talking about "It's raining!" Or "Gosh, it's winter!" There's a reason for Brian Williams' seeming obsession with the weather, of course, and it is that NBC paid billions to buy The Weather Channel, and they are desperately, desperately trying to get something out of this investment. But seriously, BriWi, just because they got an inch of rain in Walla Walla, Kissimmee, or Kalamazoo doesn't mean you have to lead the evening's news with it. Enough already!
But the real Most Overreported Story were the folks with a visceral hatred of our president. Now, hatred of a political opponent is fine and good (here's a quick test, if you don't agree: "Dubya!" -- what was your reaction, honestly?), but outright lunacy used not to be covered by the mainstream news media. Holocaust deniers, for instance, don't get many interview offers.
But all year long, we've been subjected to the Birthers. People that are convinced that Barack Obama travelled back in time to Honolulu in the 1960s, and inserted birth announcements in newspapers and then returned to the future to falsely proclaim that he had been born in Hawai'i, instead of (as we all know) his true birthplace, in Kenya. Or Australia. Or perhaps Saturn... they're a little fuzzy on that point.
Actually, they're not just a little fuzzy on every single point. They're so covered in fuzz a hippie that snuck through the time machine with Obama from the 1960s just fled the building in fear. Their fuzziness is of epic proportions. Especially their fuzzy thinking.
But such monumental flake-itude used to not be such a spectator sport. Journalists of yore (say, about twenty years yore-wards) used to get a big laugh out of people like this, while at the same time declining to give them an on-air platform for their lunacy. "Journalists" of today instead rush to book them for primetime slots.
Biggest Government Waste
Employment benefits for anyone who serves in Congress, which last for the rest of their lives. William Jefferson, for instance, who got caught "cold" with 90,000 bucks in his freezer (badly disguised as pie crusts), is still eligible for all the taxpayer-funded bennies that he got as an elected official -- even from his jail cell.
What a waste! Benefits for Congresscritters (other than, say, a simple 401K or something equivalent) should end the moment they are voted out of office. Lifetime largess on the taxpayer's dime should be abolished. I can't help thinking the healthcare reform debate, for instance, would have been a lot different if it actually affected the people voting on it, after they leave office.
Best Government Dollar Spent
Sadly, the strongest contender in this category is the same as last year: continued unemployment benefits for those out of work. It's a sad fact, but that really was some of the best-spent money by the federal government last year.
To be snarky, I could give the award to "volcano and hurricane monitoring," but that would be petty of me. Ahem.
No, this year I have to give the award to the children's health program SCHIP, and to student loans. Both were beefed up by the Democrats this year, and both are exactly the type of thing I would prefer my tax dollars go to be used for.
Boldest Political Tactic
Howard Dean certainly qualifies, by his late-in-the-year "the Emperor's got no clothes" statement condemning the sacrifices made by Democrats on healthcare reform.
Sadly, the anti-abortion Democrats also qualify, for hijacking the very same healthcare reform debate, and getting just about everything they wanted by doing so.
But on a larger scale, we again have to give out two awards, one on either side. Republicans pretty much bet their bottom dollar this year on obstructionism. They decided early on to oppose just about everything Obama tried to do, and they kept together as a voting bloc, with few defections. Last year at this time we were all sniggling about the "death of the Republican Party," but -- looking toward the midterms -- many are not so sanguine today. The Republicans are betting that they'll look good if Obama looks bad, and this may actually pay off for them this November. Whether it works for them or not, the Republicans (especially the filibuster addicts in the Senate) certainly have to be seen as bold by holding to a purely obstructionist line all year long, and by using it to campaign on.
And President Barack Obama also gets a Boldest Political Tactic award, for (ironically) his complete and utter lack of boldness. Obama (some would say) overlearned the lesson of Hillary Clinton's healthcare fiasco. Obama decided to do things differently, and not make any demands of Congress (on several issues, healthcare reform was just the most obvious), other than that they put some sort of bill on his desk for his signature. This tactic meant Obama didn't have to spend any political capital on any one detail, and thus avoided failure for any one piece of what he wanted. Which also left him able to swoop in at the very end of the process and claim victory for whatever emerged, as: "I got 90 percent of what I wanted."
This has enraged many of his supporters, I should mention. But it is indeed a change from the way business in Washington is normally transacted. Whether this change is the "Change we can believe in" or not is an open question. But, although it is hard to see this particular forest at the moment, being surrounded by healthcare trees (as it were), history sometimes records things differently than we think it will. Who knows, looking back in ten or twenty years time, whether Obama will be seen as shrewd for this political tactic, because it actually did get a few things done?
However history sees Obama's first year, though, "not being bold" was indeed a bold tactic for the president to deploy. It may be his salvation, and it may lead to his downfall -- but that is the nature of being politically bold, isn't it?
"Medicare for all."
If Democrats had started with that, and stuck to it, they could have avoided a lot of headaches. No matter what Republicans believe, most people actually like Medicare. All the calls of "socialism" could have been quite easily countered with: "Is your grandmother a socialist?"
But, sadly, Democrats only started pushing this idea way too late in the game.
Sharing this award is Vice President Joe Biden, for his idea of getting the heck out of Afghanistan. Obama took a different direction, but Biden was rumored to have made a very strong case for his position, and if the rumors are true, then he deserves a Best Idea award for his efforts.
"Doing these columns on holidays."
Oh, wait, I already said that, didn't I?
Well, I'm not even going to try to pick from our plethora of nominees, and instead am giving out multiple awards in this category. Such is my disgust at attempting to measure differing degrees of worstness in the following:
Sarah Palin quitting the governorship of Alaska. If she really does have her heart set on the White House, this is decidedly not going to help her get there.
Obama refusing to put any true progressives into his cabinet. Howard Dean, for instance, would have made a dandy Secretary of Health and Human Services.
On a similar subject, two words: Rahm Emanuel.
Obama's quest for bipartisanship that just was not in the cards (see: Boldest Political Tactic, Republicans). Perhaps this will get better next year, as it is painfully obvious that reaching out to more than the one or two moderates left in the Republican Party is a complete and utter waste of time.
And finally, if I were forced to choose, I think this one would win by a nose. Or a mangled tongue, at the very least: Chief Justice Roberts being too vain to read the oath of office he was attempting to administer to Barack Obama, to swear him in as president. Instead of writing the damn thing down on a three-by-five card, the way any normal person would do, he decided to memorize it, with disastrous results. Next time, Mister Chief Justice, don't wing it, OK?
Sorry To See You Go
Although he's neither dead nor gone yet, I have to at least mention that I will be sorry to see Bill Moyers' show disappear from the PBS airwaves.
But this column is traditionally for those who have died in the past year. While last week we sadly noted the passage of Farrah Fawcett (complete with swimsuit poster, of course), this week we will keep to the political.
Actually, no, we won't. Because we have two that must be named first. Because a lot of people were very sorry to see Mary Travers go, myself included. Mary, of "Peter, Paul and..." is surely a heavenly voice that will live forever in song.
And speaking of living forever in song, we also must note the passing of Lucy Vodden, she of "...in the Sky With Diamonds" fame. Thanks to the Beatles, she will also live forever in psychedelia.
But, sadly, we lost two icons from the political world this year. Words fail me, so I will merely post their photos in shared grief:
Senator Teddy Kennedy
"The Lion Of The Senate"
First Cat Socks Clinton
at the White House Briefing Room podium
(in the greatest "First Pet" photo of all time)
15 Minutes Of Fame
True to the spirit of this category, I am not even going to attempt to remember (much less research) these people's names:
The White House "gate crashers"
The attendees of the "beer summit"
Balloon Boy's parents
I'm tempted to give this to Obama and the White House, for "the past few weeks, on healthcare reform," but there's an even bigger spinner this year that simply must be acknowledged.
Sarah Palin, for her "death panel" spin, that Obama was nefariously plotting to set up panels of evil gummint agents, who would pronounce whether babies born were sufficiently valuable to society to allow them to live, rather than summarily executing them.
Oh, you betcha, that was some serious moose poop. But boy, howdy, didn't the media eat it up with a spoon?
Most Honest Person
Howard Dean and Barack Obama both got nominations for Most Honest Person this year, for different reasons. Dean was seen all year as a touchstone on the healthcare reform debate, because a lot of people believed he was making an honest assessment of what Congress was contemplating. So it was all the more poignant when Dean, a few days after strongly supporting a compromise Harry Reid had worked out, came out in righteous anger after most of the good things in the deal were yanked out by Reid, at Joe Lieberman's insistence.
Barack Obama's nomination is for the speech he gave when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He didn't sugar coat two things -- that he didn't feel he deserved the prize, since the Nobel committee probably would have given the same award to Michael Moore's ficus plant (had said ficus plant taken the place of George W. Bush in the Oval Office); and for the fact that Obama used a peace prize speech to make the case for "just wars."
But, in a surprise upset, the Most Honest Person award is given to... Balloon Boy!
On CNN, Balloon Boy himself upset his parent's greedy applecart, by stating "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show." For proving his parents to be scummy liars, with the entire nation watching, Balloon Boy simply has to be seen as the Most Honest Person of 2009.
Another one where explanations would be superfluous. Here's the list of runners-up, followed by the winner of Most Overrated:
Mainstream media's healthcare reform coverage
The Copenhagen conference on the environment
And the winner is...
None other than Glenn Beck!
I mean, you look up "overrated" in the dictionary, and there's Beck's face staring up at you.
I am tempted to give this award to Sarah Palin, but she'll have to wait this year.
Because I have to award Most Underrated to the Veepster himself, Joe Biden. [Pause for cheering from Biden's biggest fan, down in the comments.] Joe Biden is made out to be some sort of loose-cannon buffoon by not only comedians (on a regular basis), but also by some media types who really should know better. When the inevitable books are written on the Obama White House, my guess is that Joe Biden is going to feature a lot more prominently than anyone gives him credit for these days. So, by definition, Biden is the Most Underrated this year.
First, let's see how I did last year. Here were my predictions for 2009:
Al Franken will (eventually) be seated as Minnesota's new senator.
Jesse Jackson Junior will win Illinois' Senate seat in a special election.
Andrew Cuomo will be New York's next senator, and Caroline Kennedy will not.
Guantanamo will cease to exist as a prison, as Barack closes the doors on this sad chapter in American law.
Some sort of Truth Commission will be appointed to look into the conduct (wiretapping, torturing, rendering prisoners) of the Bush administration during the past eight years. Many facts will emerge, but nobody will ever be convicted of any crimes as a result.
Obama will have to wait until 2010 to get his health care legislation passed, but will manage next year to get some sort of framework in place to move us off imported oil in a decade. Whether it will ultimately succeed or not is beyond my crystal ball's view, but Obama will get the process started next year.
Fidel Castro will die, and American/Cuban relations will begin to thaw.
Let's take them one at a time. Senator Franken has indeed been seated. Jesse Jackson Jr. (I'm going to start calling him "J-Cubed" just to see if it catches on...) did not win, because there was no special election, as Burris was named by Blagojevich (whom I've always fondly called "Blaggy"). Cuomo was likewise denied a Senate seat, but I got that half-right, as Caroline Kennedy was likewise denied. Guantanamo's still open, but Obama is at least trying, so I'll mark this one as "incomplete." Boy, I really got that whole Truth Commission thing wrong, eh? And I totally got the energy/healthcare reform thing backwards, as Obama did exactly what I said, but you have to swap the categories involved to make it read right. Fidel's still around, but again, an "incomplete" on the Cuban situation.
Let's move on to predictions for 2010:
Obama will end the year with better approval ratings than he began it, as several things work in his favor -- troops coming home from Iraq, the improvement of the economy, and people figuring out that Republicans were just flat-out lying about what the new healthcare reform law actually does for them.
The midterms will be bad news for Democrats, but not nearly as bad as some are predicting. They lose around 15 seats in the House, and two seats in the Senate.
Harry Reid gets thrown out of the Senate by the people of Nevada.
In the leadership scramble which follows, Chuck Schumer emerges as the new Senate Majority Leader.
Afghanistan will continue to be a mess.
Guantanamo will indeed close.
There will be a major "wardrobe malfunction" during some live television, and another nipple will be spotted, destroying an entire generation of children. My money's on Lady Gaga, personally, for the perpetrator of this Nipplepocalypse. OK, I just threw this one in there to see if anyone read all the way down to this point in this tome, I have to admit.
The Tea Party will become a true third party, and get a few people elected. But, by 2012, they will tear themselves apart by fratricidal feuding.
And finally, an easy prediction -- the mainstream media will continue to miss the real story, over and over and over again, in the rush to splash sensationalistic crap all over America's consciousness.
New Year's Resolution
This one is also easy. NEVER to do these columns on Christmas and New Year's Day EVER again! I don't care what the calendar says, next time this comes up, I'll run them on Wednesday or something. Sheesh!
And now, true to the McLaughlin protocol, I bid you:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant