Welcome back to our annual year-end awards column!
In case you missed it, Part 1 of our "McLaughlin Awards" (named for the television show where we get these categories, of course) ran last week, so check it out.
Also for your convenience, here are all the previous years of these columns as well:
Destined For Political Stardom
From the Republican side of the aisle, Chris Christie springs to mind this year. So does Marco Rubio, but then we gave him this award last year (and we're still betting he's on top of every list of vice presidential running mates out there in RepublicanLand later this year).
This year, instead, we turn to the Democrats to find the winner of Destined For Political Stardom. If Elizabeth Warren manages to wrest Teddy Kennedy's old Senate seat away from the Republican usurper, she will indeed be on the road to Democratic stardom. So far, she's been extraordinarily effective on the campaign trail, and she seems to have a backbone of solid titanium.
Warren is the best the Democrats have seen since Bill Clinton at the ability to make complicated subjects easy to understand to average voters. She doesn't talk down to people, but she does talk in language just about everyone can understand.
Her campaign so far has been the populist model for every other Democrat to mimic if they want to catch the wave of anger at Wall Street, and use it to their benefit. Without question, Elizabeth Warren is Destined For Political Stardom.
Destined For Political Oblivion
There is certainly no lack of folks to choose from in this category. Anthony Weiner springs to mind, as does every politician caught in a sex scandal this year (more on that later). But this year, due to the nature of the open race on their side of the aisle, there are a whole bunch of Republicans who almost qualify for this award: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich (one would hope), Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann all spring immediately to mind. The problem with each is that, phoenix-like, one could see them rising from the ashes to fight another day... or at least to rant and rave on their new Fox News show. Or even (shudder) run for office again.
Ron Paul is in a class by himself in this category, as well. Paul is not running for his House seat next year, and has thus put all his chips on his presidential run. He may wind up being a kingmaker in the Republican race (if he captures enough delegates), or he might even make a third-party bid for the White House, who knows? Either way, he'll likely be off the stage (and off Fox News) by 2013. But he has a fervent set of followers, so "oblivion" is just too strong a word to use for Ron Paul's legacy, whatever it turns out to be.
One Republican candidate, though, is already in the Land Of Oblivion. His name is Tim Pawlenty. Surely you remember "TPaw"? Well, probably not. He dropped out of the Republican race way too early (look at some of the clowns who rose in the polls after his exit from the race, to prove this point), and is neither going to ever run again nor be given a cushy spot on Fox. Be honest with yourself, you had to think for a moment to even remember who he was, didn't you? Tim... Tim Pawlenty... um... oh, yeah, that guy! The very definition of Destined For Political Oblivion.
Best Political Theater
If there was an award for "Most Political Theater" then the Republican debates would win it hands down. This may set a precedent for future primary campaigns, so beware of that.
Defining "best" is tricky, because it's tempting to go with "political theater I enjoyed the most" which would be a decision between Occupy Wall Street and the protesters in Wisconsin who "occupied" (before the word was even used in this political sense) the Madison statehouse last winter -- along with the Democrats fleeing the state to deny Republicans a quorum. Wisconsin showed people pushing back against the attack on Labor rights, and Occupy spread to hundreds of towns and cities, so both were powerful (and theatrical) statements in their own right.
But the Best Political Theater of 2011 was an idea proposed by the group Third Way and made real by Senator Mark Udall of Colorado -- to have both parties sit intermingled in the audience for the State Of The Union speech. This was in response to the horrific shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords, which had happened only days before. This political theater put an end (for at least one year's time) to the circus-like atmosphere of the "duelling standing ovations" which the State Of The Union speech had sunk to.
The media hated it, because they couldn't accurately give sports-like "stats" to how many times each party had applauded. It deserves some sort of award just for annoying the media, if for nothing else.
You can argue it was just a stunt. You can say it won't be repeated next month. It's easy to cynically dismiss, in other words. But, for me at least, this was the Best Political Theater of the year -- because watching a State Of The Union without the annual applause sideshow was indeed quite memorable.
Worst Political Theater
Lots of nominees in this category as well. There was the dynamic between Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party -- where Boehner would cut a deal and then face open revolt by his own caucus. That was pretty bad theater, and it happened multiple times over the course of the year.
Since I forgot these last week (they really should have gone under the "Worst Photo Op" category), allow me to mention in passing: the U.C. Davis police pepper-spraying non-violent passive protesters, Christina Aguilera muffing the words to the National Anthem during the Super Bowl, and the spectacle of Tom Friedman being interviewed on the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt while wearing an expensive leather jacket in Davos, Switzerland at a confab of the bright-and-beautiful set at their annual "We're Important! Pay Attention To Us!" summit (or whatever it's called).
The obvious choice in this category would be to pick "shutting down the government" or perhaps "holding everything hostage and holding our breath until we're blue in the face" -- the tactic Republicans used over and over again throughout the year in a perpetual temper tantrum. In terms of "most significant" that would certainly qualify.
But instead we're giving the Worst Political Theater award to Congress (led by the Republicans) for their political theater of "reading the Constitution to open our session... except the parts that are embarassing." This was just pure hokum, on a P. T. Barnum-esque scale. Strict constructionalist? I hardly think so. If you can't read the words as they were originally written, then don't even bother wasting our time, folks. And obviously, the House Republicans who staged this stunt weren't even listening to it, because within three months they tried to mount a "coup" by decreeing the law of the land without benefit of the Senate voting or the president's signature. Next time, if you read the Constitution's text, maybe you should pay closer attention to what it actually says, guys.
Worst Political Scandal
Of course, when the word "scandal" comes up, we all immediately think "sex." The worst sex scandal in the political world last year was probably the man Doonesbury labeled the "Gropenfuhrer" -- Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie's secret baby with his maid was definitely the most titillating scandal of the year, but Arnie was actually out of office when the story broke, so the story doesn't even really qualify. Also, Herman Cain wasn't in office yet, and was likewise passed over.
Then there was Anthony Weiner's weener. This has to have been the "most memorable" sex scandal of the year, since no further explanation is necessary. Although we should all offer (ahem) congratulations to Weiner's wife, who just gave birth to a son a few days ago. Hoo boy....
In "most bizarre photo that looks Photoshopped but isn't" category, there was David Wu (Rowr!) of Oregon, who got bonus points for adding drugs into his increasingly-strange behavior. At the time I actually wrote the sentence: "His own staff reportedly confronted him days before the voters were to go to the polls, and tried to get Wu to check himself into a psychiatric hospital," which deserves some sort of recognition, for sure.
My favorite will go down in history as the "fastest sex scandal of all time" in Washington lore, no doubt. Remember the "Craigslist Congressman"? No? If not, it's because it happened with such blinding speed. The entire scandal -- from public exposure of Republican House member Chris Lee flirting online with women not married to him (complete with flexed-muscles photo), to a denial issued by his office (that he had just "sold some furniture" and his account had likely been hacked), to a gotcha interview with Fox News, to his resignation being read on the House floor (for making "profound mistakes") -- took only a gaspingly-swift three hours and twenty-seven minutes! I'd bet the farm nobody's ever going to top that record.
But, all salaciousness aside, I have to agree with the Republicans this year, and award the Worst Political Scandal the "Fast and Furious" program of allowing guns to be trafficked to Mexico by drug gangs. The Justice Department laid a big egg with this one. There's just no other way to say it. Eric Holder already missed his chance to gracefully step down over this fiasco, and one hopes that if Obama wins a second term, he'll decide to pick a new Attorney General.
Most Underreported Story
As always, plenty of these to choose from. The benefits of Obamacare slowly becoming real (such as free contraception pills for women). The rise in deportations of illegal aliens. The shameful fact that we haven't been processing visas fast enough so that Iraqis who helped the United States (by being translators, for instance) can move here -- and instead they now live in danger of their lives in Iraq because of aiding America. A likewise-shameful screwup with the green card lottery this year which left a whole lot of people thinking they had won green cards only to get a second letter saying "so sorry, we're holding the lottery all over again." The nuclear fallout from the Japanese reactor (the news media ran a lot of film of reactors blowing up, but virtually no solid information or data telling the public how much radiation had escaped and how far it had gotten). Right up until the Occupy Wall Street movement began, the refusal of the mainstream media to point out that raising taxes on millionaires polls incredibly favorably with the American public -- consistently getting around 75 percent approval. The Progressive "People's Budget" which was introduced this year in Congress -- and utterly ignored by the media. The story of the unemployment rate falling at a faster rate than it has since 1958 -- from 9.8 percent to 8.9 percent in only three months.
But, overall, the Most Underreported Story was the war in Libya. The American media perked up when the war began, and ran explosive footage, and then they quickly got bored. They stayed bored, occasionally running some footage of a few guys in a Jeep with a machine gun, using the dismissive "a ragtag band of rebel fighters" ad nauseam. At the very end, the media woke back up and covered the fall of Tripoli. They then got bored again, until the capture of Ghaddafi gave them the juicy footage they'd been waiting for all along.
The entire exercise was a pathetic and poor excuse for journalism. Other media outlets -- those outside the United States -- did a much better job, and thanks to the internet Americans could indeed stay informed if they put forth the effort. But the American media absolutely stunk in their coverage of the progress of the war -- the Most Underreported Story of the year.
Most Overreported Story
In my opinion, "class warfare" is vastly overreported. But then, when I think about it, it's more the "most overused trite nonsense term" which isn't exactly the same thing.
So we're just going to go with the obvious, and award Most Overreported Story to Donald Trump. On what planet could this man be considered material for President of the United States? I mean, really, what planet would this actually happen upon? Sheesh. Maybe it's just because he has an outsized presence in New York City, and most all of the national media types live there. Or something. It's hard to figure why anyone takes this buffoon so seriously. From his birth certificate demands of President Obama, to his flirtation with the Republican primary race in order to gain a better contract for his television show, to his debate that nobody was going to show up at --- why, precisely, is this man news anymore?
Biggest Government Waste
Well, there's always "congressional vacations." Or maybe that should just be "congressional pay." Sigh.
But instead of money, this year we're going to hand out Biggest Government Waste for the biggest time waster of the year -- the soi disant "Supercommittee." What an enormous waste of time that was, eh?
Best Government Dollar Spent
If I wanted a sweeping award here, I'd give it to "unemployment insurance payment extensions" since every economist agrees this is the best "bang for the buck" government spending there is under the sun.
But we're going microscopic on this category. A close runner-up this year was the guy at the Centers for Disease Control who wrote an amusing (and informative!) official C.D.C. blog post explaining how Americans can prepare for (are you sitting down?) immanent zombie apocalypse. For sheer entertainment value, this was the Best Government Dollar Spent last year, bar none. But it narrowly misses winning our award this year, because of the misstep on timing. The blog post appeared in May. Just imagine how much more effective (and how much more amusing for the news media) should it have appeared in... oh, I don't know... late October?
Seriously, though, we are going to get microscopic and it is in the entertainment realm. The winner of the Best Government Dollar Spent this year is the National Jukebox. I even titled the article I wrote about this project "Tax Dollars Well Spent." The Library of Congress worked out a deal with Sony to put thousands of pre-1925 recordings online, for free public access. This represents a treasure trove of all kinds of recordings, and is my hands-down winner for best usage of my tax dollars.
Boldest Political Tactic
Ron Paul announced his candidacy for president this May... on Friday the 13th. That's pretty darn bold, right?
Kidding aside, though, President Obama's decision to center his campaign around populism was pretty bold -- if only because he's been a reluctant populist, at best, so far.
Realistically, we had three strong contenders. The first runner-up was the Occupy Wall Street folks for trying to replicate the energy of the Arab Spring people power here in America. The jury's still out on how history will see the 99 Percent movement, but already it has injected several important subjects into the political debate which were previously being conveniently ignored by the inside-the-Beltway crowd.
The second runner-up was the concept of shutting down the government. Both sides took part in this, the Democrats up in Wisconsin, and the Tea Partiers in the U.S. House. But in neither case was it very successful, in terms of concrete results. In both cases, however, it did energize the party base, which could turn out to be more important in the end.
But the real winner of the Boldest Political Tactic was the reason why people occupied Madison, Wisconsin in the first place -- the coordinated attack by newly-minted Republican governors across the land on public-sector Labor. The Unions were under full-scale siege by the governors, who decided this was the time for overreaching. It wasn't just Scott Walker, it was a whole bunch of others who began demonizing Labor with a ferocity not seen in years. The backlash against this extremism is building, but you have to hand it to the governors -- whether it ultimately fails or not -- attacking Unions in this fashion was admittedly bold.
How about letting The Onion compete for a Pulitzer Prize? Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
Making the insurance industry provide The Pill to all women for free was a good idea whose time has come.
But the Best Idea of 2011 came from the voters in California. They passed a referendum which mandated that the state budget be passed on time -- if not, then lawmakers' pay would be immediately cut off. No budget? No pay. Simple as that.
Previously, California had been known for budgets that were seven, eight, or even nine months late. This year, the budget did not pass on time. Or, rather, they tried to pass a piece of garbage and call it a budget. The state's top paymaster ruled that it wasn't a real budget, and the paychecks stopped. Within two weeks a real budget was in place. That is a damn good idea, and the best one of the year. You don't do your job? Then you don't get paid, Jack.
There were almost too many of these to keep track of.
The Paul Ryan budget. Shutting down the government. The House Tea Partiers attempting a coup of the legislative process. "9-9-9." Overturning the F.D.A. on over-the-counter Plan B sales. Attacking the legal medical marijuana industry in California (and elsewhere) in ways not even George W. Bush attempted.
Then there was always the first slogan the Obama-in-2012 people came up with: "Winning The Future." I mean, really, guys... WTF?
But again I'm going to go micro, here. The Worst Idea of 2011 was the post office's decision to allow live people to appear on U.S. stamps. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is. Read my whole rant on the subject, if interested. Only three stamps have ever had live Americans depicted on them, and two of those were the same image (the Iwo Jima flag-raising -- the other image was of a post-9/11 flag-raising). Those are the only types of live Americans I ever want to see on stamps -- anonymous heroes. If you think I'm overreacting, consider this: what kind of battles will be waged over which live U.S. politician gets a stamp while they're still around? Or sports figures? Or pop musicians? You really want to see a Kardashians stamp -- or a Snooki stamp? The whole thing is an easily-avoidable nightmare.
Sorry To See You Go
Always a sad category. Before we get to deaths, I'd like to note two things I'll be sorry to see go:
Jim Lehrer as full-time anchor on the PBS NewsHour program.
Herman Cain as a Republican candidate -- because he brought a certain upbeat spark to the race which is now notable in its absence. Seriously, don't any of the Republican candidates ever smile? Even once?
And, finally, the space shuttle program.
On to notable human passings...
Andy Rooney (secret confession: I've always wanted his job).
Geraldine Ferraro, barrier-breaker extraordinaire.
Anne McCaffrey, the MasterWriter of Pern.
Steve Jobs (full disclosure: I once worked for him, indirectly, at Apple).
And Corporal Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I (who was, quite shamefully, not allowed to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol's Rotunda, which is just inexcusable).
15 Minutes Of Fame
One could make the case for Chris Lee, for his three hours and twenty-seven minutes of infamy (see scandals, above). It's certainly closest to the literal meaning of the phrase.
One could also make a case for Occupy Wall Street (note: not the larger 99 Percenter movement it spawned), but they may return like robins in the spring weather, so we'll just have to wait and see.
Although the competition was tight in the Republican presidential race wannabe class of folks, we're going to have to hand the 15 Minutes Of Fame award to none other than the pizza man himself, Herman Cain. It was a wild ride, and we'll all remember "9... 9... 9!!" for years to come, that's my guess.
This one is relatively easy. While the Republicans masterfully spun the fact that they were injecting a monstrous amount of uncertainty into the world's markets and economies with their political tactics this year -- by, in true Orwellian fashion, saying they were fighting against such "uncertainty," even this whopper wasn't good enough to win Best Spin this year.
The Best Spin of the year came from the Republicans -- calling millionaires and billionaires "job creators." Seriously, I had never heard the term a year ago, and now it's everywhere. I would send this award straight to Frank Luntz, if I had any proof he were behind it, but whoever dreamed this nonsense spin up truly deserves the Best Spin of 2011.
Most Honest Person
I'm going to have to give this one to Ron Paul. Love him or hate him, he usually says exactly what's on his mind, and it's usually the same exact thing he's been saying for roughly three decades. That's a whale of a lot more honest than most, in the swampland that is our Nation's Capital.
Sigh... oh, OK, I'll bring it back to politics.
There were plenty of overrated Republican candidates this year, most prominent in the media itself being Jon Huntsman. More stories were written about Huntsman's magic chances for winning than I've ever seen someone who consistently polls at two percent or less.
If there were a "Most Overrated Within His Own Mind" award, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich would be fighting it out this year. We could have it on pay-per-view, even. The ratings would be huge!
But the real Most Overrated award goes to Rick Perry, or (as we should all start calling him forever more) "George W. Bush Lite." Perry was supposed to be the Republican messiah who could tie together the Tea Partiers, the religious Right, and the establishment Republicans who run the party. He was billed as the ultimate Anti-Romney.
All of this was before (of course) the man actually opened up his mouth. The shock and horror which quickly followed in the Republican Party earns Rick Perry the Most Overrated this year.
Two names spring to mind from the Obama administration: Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. Both are fairly low-key and consistently competent in what they do. Clinton, in particular, had a lot on her plate this year. Panetta flawlessly extricated the troops from Iraq -- in what was billed as the biggest logistical move the Pentagon has made since World War II. Both Clinton and Panetta never sought the limelight, either. Plus, there's a great clip of a guy in a loincloth running behind Clinton this year that I somehow forgot for last week's Best Photo Op (heh).
But the true winner of Most Underrated this year is Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percenters. Constantly brushed off by most media as nothing more than a bunch of dirty hippies, these protesters have completely changed the dynamic in the power halls of Washington and the media. The Occupiers have their problems, to be sure, but they have blazed a trail through the wilderness that others are now following. While an argument can be made that the Unions and others in Wisconsin started the spark this year among the Left, Occupy Wall Street successfully got the world's attention turned towards the shameless collusion between Big Business and the politicians they bribe to do their bidding. Because of this, the populism momentum has shifted from the Right's Tea Party to the Left's 99 Percenters. While it's too early to see how it'll all play out, that's an enormous accomplishment already. For this achievement, the Occupiers are the Most Underrated of 2011.
As always, I like to review my predictions from last year first, to see how I did in 2011. Here goes:
The Tea Party and establishment Republicans are going to battle about what to do in Congress, reminiscent of the Blue Dog battles on the Democratic side.
Two-parter: Congress will get more done than anyone expects, and the battleground will be in the House, not the Senate.
Obama's approval rating will rebound, and finish the year "above water" (better than his job disapproval rating), ending months of being "underwater."
Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin will all run for the Republican nod.
President Obama will not get any serious primary challenge.
Let's just score that, shall we? The first I was right on the money (see: Boehner and Tea Party, last week). The second and third (the two-parter), well I blew the first half, didn't I? Congress got next to nothing done. The battleground was in the House, for the most part, though. The jury's still out on the next one, but Obama's approval rating at RealClearPolitics is indeed approaching the breakthrough point, after being underwater for months. But we won't know until the year ends whether he makes it or not. I was only right on one out of three predictions for the Republican race, but I was right about Obama not facing any primary challenge. So, by my count, three-and-a-third right, one-and-two-thirds wrong, and one still in abeyance. That's better than last year, when I got zero out of seven right!
OK, on to next year. In 2012:
Unemployment will fall below eight percent in the summer, and the economy will be less of an issue in the fall election than anyone now believes.
Ron Paul will win Iowa. The media will continue to ignore him. He'll place in the top three in New Hampshire. The media will collectively yawn.
Newt will crash and burn before Super Tuesday. He'll say something so outrageous, so outside mainstream Republican thought that his poll numbers will tank.
Mitt Romney will win the nomination by mid-April.
He will choose as his running mate Marco Rubio, in a bid to attract the Tea Party and win Florida. Republicans will regretfully close ranks around Romney.
The Americans Elect "online convention" will overwhelmingly vote for Ron Paul to head their third-party ticket. Americans Elect's board will overrule this decision and nominate Bloomberg. Ron Paul will be offered the Libertarian Party's ticket instead, making it a four-way race for November.
Barack Obama will win a second term. Republicans will vent their fury on the Ron Paul supporters, much as Democrats did to Ralph Nader voters.
See you next year!
Or, in keeping with the official McLaughlin protocol, I bid you:
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant