Well, that was an eventful week in politics, wasn't it?
On the Republican side, we've endured two more of a seemingly-unending series of televised debates between the candidates. Newt Gingrich did not physically attack either Mitt Romney or a member of the media, for which we can all be thankful. The deep and pressing issue-of-the-day seriously discussed was putting a manned base on the moon -- which will come as a relief to the legions of voters who have been clamoring for this crucially-important subject to be adequately debated in public.
Sigh. Seriously, you just can't make this stuff up, folks. I guess it's an improvement over arguing over ex-wives. I guess.
To the amusement of Democrats everywhere, the Republican establishment woke up last week and realized Newt Gingrich is now a serious contender for their party's nomination. This led to a blistering broadside from all parts of the conservative media and political universe, who are collectively shuddering in fear of Newt at the top of the ticket this fall. This onslaught has seemed to be effective, so far, as Romney's poll numbers have risen in Florida while Newt's surge seems to have crested. But it's still too close to call, and people vote next Tuesday, so next week will be just as eventful, one assumes.
Over on the Democratic side, we had our annual State Of The Union message from the president, and a successful raid on some thugs in Somalia who had taken two people hostage.
That's quite a contrast, isn't it? No wonder Obama's poll numbers have been going up, of late. But let's get on with the column, because we'll be spotlighting excerpts from Obama's State Of The Union later, in the talking points.
While it doesn't perfectly fit into this category, we'd first like to extend our warm congratulations to Representative Barney Frank, who just announced his engagement to his partner. We wish these two men every happiness in their married life together.
Barack Obama is worthy of at least an Honorable Mention this week, for giving a great speech Tuesday night, for following it up in swing states across the country, and for giving the green light to the hostage raid. Obama seemed calmly competent throughout all of it, which is quite a welcome change after watching so many Republican candidate debates.
But the real Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was none other than Gabby Giffords, who left the House of Representatives this week to work on her rehabilitation after being savagely shot in the head last year. Giffords' appearance at the State Of The Union and her bipartisan farewell from the House were sad moments in a lot of ways, but also inspiring moments. For a short time, there weren't political enemies in the House intent only on bickering with each other, but instead there were just human beings wishing one of their own well in the future. You don't get moments like that in Washington very often these days, which is why it was so impressive.
Giffords is stepping down now to open up the field for her seat and give a boost to Democrats who are qualified to replace her. If she had waited, it would have been almost impossible for anyone to run against her from her own party, due to her circumstances. By both stepping down and by announcing her husband won't be running for her seat, Giffords has cleared the way for others to follow in her footsteps. This is the mark of a selfless politician, it must be said.
Giffords left with class, and with her head held high. Her journey back from such a grievous wound has been a long one, and we wish her well on her road to recovery. As she is leaving public life, we likely won't be giving her any future awards, so we decided she needed one last Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award as she exits.
[Congratulate Representative Gabby Giffords on her House contact page (while it still exists), to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]
We thought we had a good candidate for MDDOTW, but when we looked into the story, two facts precluded the award. First, the guy just survived a recall bid, and second, he is a "non-partisan" politician, because that's the way the town's elections are set up.
We speak of Bob Ryan, mayor of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. His drunken antics made the national news this week right before the recall election, and the details (with photos!) are pretty spectacular -- and not in a good way.
But the award isn't the "MDNPOTW," after all, so we're reluctantly declaring Bob Ryan ineligible. Which, happily, leaves us with no other candidate for the MDDOTW award, as Democrats have been pretty quiet this week (preferring to watch the Republican circus from the sidelines, for the most part).
As always, if we've forgotten someone you feel richly deserves a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week, please let us know in the comments.
Volume 195 (1/27/12)
President Obama's State Of The Union address, many have pointed out, will likely form the core of his re-election message. This is entirely normal, for any first-term president.
What struck me upon hearing the president's speech, and upon reading it over later, was how thematically cohesive the whole thing was. For years now, I (and many others) have been all but begging the Obama speechwriters to develop this theme -- what might be called "What Democrats stand for." Because while laundry lists of policy proposals do indeed have their place, if you don't have an overall vision for the future, they tend to fall flat.
Another way to put this is: a lot of people vote based on emotion, and not cold logic. This is the heart of what lots of people deride as "spin" and "talking points," but that doesn't make it any less true. Emotion is an important part of politics, but Democrats have always struggled to come to terms with this. Democrats are weak on presenting themselves thematically, in many cases.
Barack Obama did a great job campaigning in 2008. After he took office, however, the inspiring oratory seemed to all but vanish from his speeches. He has been doing better on this front -- a fact that many have missed over the past half-year or so -- and in his State Of The Union he proved he's just about ready to take this message to the American people on the campaign trail this year.
The speech was remarkable in the theme it struck, which I would sum up as: "We're all in this together." I have two fairly long excerpts from the speech, the very beginning and the very end, where Obama really hit is stride rhetorically. While touting his own record on several issues, he always managed to weave them back into the overall message.
What is possibly the most striking thing about Obama's message is that he's going to run as a strong foreign policy president -- something that I can't for the life of me remember happening in the past 30 or 40 years. This has, during this period, been seen as a huge weak spot for Democrats, so it is astonishing to see one make it such a core part of his campaign message.
Here is how the president began his speech Tuesday night (or you can read the full transcript, if interested):
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:
Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought -- and several thousand gave their lives.
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton's Army, got the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share -- the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What's at stake aren't Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.
Let's remember how we got here. Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete. Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren't, and personal debt that kept piling up.
In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn't afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people's money. Regulators had looked the other way, or didn't have the authority to stop the bad behavior.
It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hardworking Americans holding the bag. In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly 4 million jobs. And we lost another 4 million before our policies were in full effect.
Those are the facts. But so are these: In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs.
Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Together, we've agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And we've put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like this never happens again.
The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we've come too far to turn back now. As long as I'm President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.
No, we will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last -- an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.
Now, this blueprint begins with American manufacturing.
On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world's number-one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.
We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.
What followed was the "meat" of the speech -- the usual laundry list of proposals and ideas. Throughout it all, Obama kept hammering on the same broad themes: Fairness is an American value. We can do this together, if we only try. Things are getting better.
This, as I said, will be the centerpiece of his re-election strategy. Of course, realistically, few of his policy ideas are going to make it through Congress, which could get interesting as the other theme Obama kept returning to was: If Congress doesn't act, then I will do whatever's in my power to change things on my own. This "Do-Nothing Congress" theme has been growing for the past few months, and it is a real winner for the president, seeing how Congress' approval ratings have stayed consistently around 10 percent or so for the past year. The public isn't fond of the bickering in Washington, which leaves a big opening for Obama.
Getting back to the State Of The Union speech, after Obama finished itemizing his biggest priorities for the future, he built to a rousing finish. Once again, the examples he used were from the military, and once again he used them as a metaphor for how America can work together if we only get our priorities straight.
Obama laid out his theme. He laid out how his vision for the future is a better one than his opponents. He defined the Democratic narrative in a clear and resounding way. Democrats running for office next year would do well to follow Obama's lead, and incorporate some of this language into their own campaign messages.
Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter. Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates -- a man who was George Bush's defense secretary -- and Hillary Clinton -- a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job -- the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's somebody behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
-- Chris Weigant