I promise that this list of 2015 American political winners and losers — one of dozens of such exercises being published this week — will not mention Donald Trump. (After that one.)
It’s been a long, long year in U.S. politics. It seems like decades ago that John Boehner was House Speaker, Jeb Bush was GOP-nominee-presumptive, Ted Cruz was a marginalized junior senator, Joe Biden was a GOP campaign trail laugh line and Barack Obama was a terrorist-loving, Kenyan-born, Muslim jihadist. (Well, four out of five ain’t bad.)
The list of political losers this year is loooooooooong. The list of political winners is short and subject to change without notice in 2016. (Will the honeymoon end, Speaker Ryan, or will we be talking about President-elect Paul Ryan one leap year from today?)
For what it’s worth, here’s my take, starting with losers:
Nobody went from rising national star to minor-league dud faster than the in-over-his-head Wisconsin governor. He gave one good campaign speech in Iowa and was hailed as the GOP presidential frontrunner by the out-of-touch political media elite. His campaign was a free-spending disaster that was destroyed by one simple thing — a terrible candidate.
Rick Perry, the Scott Walker of 2011, was the Harold Stassen of 2015. Nobody took the former Texas governor seriously as a presidential candidate. He couldn’t get traction, even though he gave the best speech of the Republican campaign — on the sensitive subject of race — at the National Press Club and articulately warned the GOP electorate about the candidate who shall not be named.
In his view: The inmates took over the asylum on Capitol Hill, and the keeper of the keys decided to flee the funny farm. A slightly more jaundiced view: The veteran House speaker and former fire-breathing Republican revolutionary was burned out and unable to reconcile the new generation of irreconcilable nihilists and the establishment majority in his very conservative caucus. After praying with Pope Francis, he chose a quiet glass of chardonnay on the balcony instead of a brass-knuckles brawl in the men’s room.
Remember when Walter Mondale decided not to run for president back in the 1970s because he doubted he had the fire in his belly for a presidential candidate. (You don’t? Well, trust me.) I get the feeling that Jeb Bush is the Walter Mondale of 2016. He acts like he really didn’t want to run for president, but everybody — except his mother — told him it was his duty (to the nation, to the party, to the Bush family) to run. So he ran. Badly, thus far. How bad is it? The incomparable Will Ferrell returned to Saturday Night Live to reprise his famous role as George W. Bush. His big laugh line: Bet you didn’t know I was the smart son.
The Republican political establishment
The GOP establishment — that amorphous, pan-ideological political group that shares a wariness of outsiders — is accustomed to getting its way. Over the past seven decades, only two insurgents (Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan) have defeated the candidate favored by a majority of GOP “wise men” and Daddy Warbuckses. Indeed, from 1976 through 2008, there was always someone named Bush or Dole on the Republican ticket. This year, the so-called establishment candidates (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker, Rick Perry) received less combined support than the first-term firebrand from Texas, Ted Cruz, is polling now. The purported savior of the Republican establishment may end up being Marco Rubio, a Tea Party champion who vanquished the GOP establishment in 2010 when he seized the Florida Senate nomination from a sitting Republican governor. Or Chris Christie, a.k.a. He Who Hugged Obama in 2012.
The Republican party
The GOP now has a presidential frontrunner who cannot win in the general election and could hand the House and Senate back to the Democrats in a Goldwater-style replay. (Goodbye, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire Senate seats.) The GOP now has a second-running candidate who would be a very tough sell to general election swing voters. The “establishment” candidates who are running ahead of Hillary Clinton in general election match-ups seem to be long shots and getting longer by the week. (One of them, Marco Rubio, has been in a holiday slump and has compensated for his declining poll numbers by taking more time off of the campaign trail.)
The establishment media
The Pundit Elite told you that a certain billionaire real estate and gambling tycoon was not a serious candidate for president. The Huffington Post relegated him to the entertainment section. They said he would fade when he questioned John McCain’s patriotism. They said he would fade when he said Mexico was sending rapists across the border to violate American … sovereignty. They said he would fade when he announced a plan to prohibit Muslim visitors from entering the United States. The big “they” have been wrong, wrong, wrong. They were wrong about Rick Perry. Time Magazine once asked. “Can Anyone Stop Rick Perry in 2016?” Duh, yes. They were wrong about Scott Walker. US News declared, “Walker Launches 2016 Campaign as GOP Frontrunner.” Chris Matthews was wrong when he declared that Rand Paul would be the 2016 nominee. (“You watch. This is what I do for a living.”) And the pundits were most definitely wrong about Jeb Bush, the one-time “Mister Inevitable” of the 2016 campaign. So what were they right about? The inevitable Hillary Clinton victory? OK, that seems likely, although the first vote has still not been counted. Here’s my final warning about pundit predictions: Beware all pundits who predict the general election with absolute certainty before Labor Day 2016.
Having lit the match of the Tea Party revolution in 2009, Fox News saw the wildfire scorch the Republican Party in 2015. Populism trumped past favorite “isms” of Fox News: compassionate conservatism, neo-conservatism, Bush-Cheney-ism and O’Reilly-ism. A former Democrat who gave money to oodles of Democrats and praised both Clintons to the high heavens is now the favorite of the populist right. Rupert Murdoch despises the candidate who shall not be named. He’s shared his opinion with the world — repeatedly — through social media. But there’s seemingly nothing he or his TV network can do about it.
Dick “Darth Vader” Cheney
“I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from. A lot of people, my ancestors got here, because they were Puritans.” This was not some lefty civil libertarian talking. This was Mister Waterboarding himself, Richard Cheney, talking to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. The former vice president, who embraces his “Darth Vader” image with Dickensian good cheer, thinks that the candidate who shall not be named has gone beyond the bounds of decency. But that certain candidate doesn’t care what Dick Cheney or George W. Bush or any of their neocon friends think. He says they screwed up Iraq and Afghanistan and the entirety of Southwest Asia with ill-considered invasions. When he talks like that, the billionaire tycoon sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders.
With all the big losers in 2015, I’d like to end my list with the year’s most insignificant loser. Aaron Schock. Once the youngest member of Congress, he showed off his “six-pack abs” on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. Turns out that the emperor had no clothes at all. The fourth-term congressman was snared in a series of scandals involving his accumulation of personal wealth through the aid of political donors and his alleged use of taxpayer money to fund a celebrity lifestyle. “Politics shouldn’t be a ticket to a celebrity lifestyle on the public’s dime,” Charles C.W. Cooke wrote in National Review. “For a man who has enjoyed such a short and undistinguished career, Illinois’s Representative Aaron Schock (R) has sure packed in a lot of corruption.” With no friends and no sympathy, the era of Shock and Awe ended abruptly on March 17 when he quit his day job.
And now the winners …
In 2004, when George W. Bush made same-sex marriage one of the key wedge issues in his re-election bid against Democrat John Kerry, 60 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage and just 31 percent supported it. The past decade has seem a seismic shift in public opinion. Not only did the U.S. Supreme Court legalize what is now known as “marriage equality” this year, but the public overwhelmingly supports it, 55 percent to 39 percent, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his landmark majority opinion:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
There have been 353 documented mass shootings in the United States this year, almost one per day. Gun and ammo sales have spiked with each of the largest mass murders. In Washington, all attempts to pass gun-control measures have been resoundingly rejected on Capitol Hill. Score two for the National Rifle Association.
Yes, I know, gasoline pump prices are down. That makes American consumers a winner but Big Oil companies a loser. But Big Oil is still having a very Merry Christmas after getting a very nice holiday gift from Congress and President Obama: an end to the four-decade-old domestic oil export ban. As recounted by my former colleague Jennifer Dlouhy, now with Bloomberg News:
Sensing they had momentum, oil industry lobbyists stepped up a social media campaign targeting possible supporters by placing ads on Facebook and elsewhere. Companies printed anti-ban messages on royalty checks. And in the end, supporters of retaining the ban were outmatched on the Hill, where at least 34 groups and companies were lobbying to allow exports compared to seven lobbying against.
“It moved quickly,” ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance told Jennifer. “A lot quicker than industry thought it would.”
Megyn Kelly and Hugh Hewitt
Two conservative media personalities gained wide respect across the political spectrum by their tough but fair questioning of presidential candidates in nationally televised debates. For her professionalism, Kelly has faced sexist and misogynistic barbs from the candidate who shall not be named. Hewitt, one of the American media’s leading experts on foreign policy, asks specific and significant questions that cannot be dismissed as liberal propaganda.
Après Boehner, le déluge? Pas de tout.
Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP VP nominee, maneuvered flawlessly into the position that Republicans from center, right and far right were all begging him to accept the job that Boehner suddenly vacated. The bizarre courtship process has given Ryan a lot of political capital, and he has used it wisely, cutting a conservative deal to keep the U.S. government operating that won the approval of a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike. It’s always hard to predict when the honeymoon might end, but Paul Ryan has led a charmed political life in 2015.
John McCain dismissed him as one of the wacko birds. His Texas colleague, John Cornyn, called him out after he accused Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of telling a “flat-out lie.” His Senate colleagues have ridiculed and repudiated him repeatedly. To most officeholders, this would be a political kiss of death. But to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, it is a kiss of life. Running for president as the sworn enemy of the “Washington Cartel,” Cruz has risen from low single digits in early polling to challenging for first place in national polls. He is a darling of right-wing radio, and he has rolled out dozens of endorsements from famous names in the conservative movement. His presidential campaign has been as disciplined as it has been cold-blooded in his attacks on President Obama and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The Texas Tornado capped off the year by releasing a light-hearted Christmas video poking fun at himself and people who take themselves too seriously.
Well, Mitch McConnell isn’t happy that Ted Cruz might become his party’s presidential nominee. But that’s 2016. In 2015, he pretty much outmaneuvered both the Cruz wing of the Senate GOP and Harry Reid’s Democratic minority. While the Senate Majority Leader is not a particularly big fan of Barack Obama, he has proven time and again that he can work with him to cut a deal. Cruz calls him a card-carrying “cartel” member. In the olden days, he would have been called a “legislator.”
Through his grief at the loss of his son Beau, Joe Biden’s humanity shined. He embodied a word that has almost ceased to exist in American politics: “authentic.” As 2015 dawned, Republican presidential candidates regularly made Biden the butt of jokes. As the year is coming to a close, those jokes have been discarded.
If Joe Biden showed grace under pressure, most of the political world showed that America has lots to fear from fear itself. A fear of Muslim terrorists and Latino immigrants has convinced a majority of Republicans that it’s time to seal America’s borders. Presidential candidates have called for internet censorship and routine government surveillance power to peruse our private emails in search of potential terrorists. Ratings-challenged cable news networks have nurtured the nation’s paranoia with sensationalistic coverage.
I have been fortunate to be able to experiment and innovate over the past six years at the Houston Chronicle. As I look back on my tenure at Texas’ largest newspaper, I am particularly proud of these accomplishments:
Launched in December 2007, Texas on the Potomac developed into a valued “brand” in Texas journalism — THE place to go for news about Texans in Washington or national news of interest to a Texas audience. We proved that high quality journalism and “clicks” are not mutually exclusive. We built a large and loyal audience not only in our home base of Houston, but in Austin, Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth and in more than 20 countries around the world including Finland, Norway and Korea.
2. Reinventing Washington bureau coverage for a regional newspaper
Chronicle editor-in-chief Jeff Cohen hired me to reinvent the Chron Washington bureau, and I took the challenge to the next level. I reimagined how a regional newspaper should cover the nation’s capital. Rather than duplicate the wires or the national newspapers, we tailored our national stories to our local audience. We offered analytical coverage explaining the importance of the events that were unfolding in Washington. And we covered the Texas delegation and Texans on the Potomac like they had never been covered before. We broke news story after news story on the web and then offered value-added coverage for print. We had a robust social media presence, too, offering comprehensive coverage to readers interested in Houston and Texas politics on whatever platform they preferred. All while seeing our staff shrink. And shrink.
3. Helping to launch the careers of so many talented young journalists
It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with so many talented interns from across the globe. Our former interns have gone on to journalism greatness (already) at the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call and many other news outlets, large and small, print and broadcast … and digital. I hope my interns learned as much from me as I learned from them. The interns’ talents and enthusiasm prove to me that there is a future in journalism. To all my interns: You have inspired me.
4. Teaching cutting-edge training programs for journalism students and midcareer professionals
Through my role as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute — the educational and charitable arm of the National Press Club — I was able to teach thousands of aspiring journalists, midcareer journalists, journalism educators and professional communicators the skills they needed to survive and thrive in today’s rapidly changing multimedia world. Whether the subject was writing for the web or building a community and brand via Twitter, I embraced the turbulent times and tried to help others navigate through rocky seas. That training has trained me for the next chapter in my life.
Before Texas on the Potomac came along, there was a void in “mainstream media” coverage of Latino politics and national policy issues of interest to Texas Latinos. With the help of my TxPotomac compatriots and superb La Voz de Houston editors Aurora Losada and Silvia Struthers, we provided comprehensive coverage of important issues such as immigration, health care, border policy, U.S.-Mexico issues, Voter ID, voting rights, redistricting, education and other matters of particular interest to our Latino audience. We gave special attention to Latino elected officials and representatives of heavily Latino districts across Texas. I often wrote stories that appeared in print only in Spanish in La Voz.
6. Award-winning coverage of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign
Texas Associated Press Managing Editors gave only one journalism award for coverage of the 2012 elections. It was to our Houston Chronicle team for coverage of Rick Perry’s disastrous White House run. I was proud to have created “Rick Perry Watch” on Texas on the Potomac, the forerunner of our robust “Perry Presidential” web site. Our coverage combined breaking news, ahead-of-the-curve analysis, multimedia storytelling and interesting items culled from other outlets. The result was the most comprehensive daily report on an ill-fated campaign, one that became a must-read for political reporters covering the 2012 campaign.
“First, readers were lucky to have a newspaper willing to dedicate the staff to cover Perry’s bid as an intensely local story,” the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors wrote in their citation. “Just as important, the overall level of work was superb.”
7. Starting a monthly lunch with the Texas delegation
When I arrived as Chronicle Washington bureau chief, there was widespread grumbling in the Houston-area congressional delegation about the Chronicle. To improve lines of communication, I created a monthly, bipartisan lunch with our local lawmakers and the Chronicle reporters and editors. It gave Houston-area House members a chance to tell us what they were working on and what their constituents were talking about, and gave us a chance to ask questions and develop in-depth stories. It also provided opportunities for some bipartisan legislative efforts on issues such as energy, transportation . All in all, it allowed all of us to better serve our joint constituency — the news consumers of Texas and the voters of the Houston area.
I owe bipartisan thanks to Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Gene Green of Houston for rounding up lawmakers from Houston — and more recently South Texas — each month.
8. Reaching one million monthly page views on Texas on the Potomac
When I created Texas on the Potomac, I asked how we would judge success. I was told 100,000 page views per month.
Well, we twice hit one million page views — once during the Republican National Convention in August 2012 and again in November, the month of the election. The doubters have been vanquished. Even with very little publicity, we built a franchise. It also helped that I taught our tremendous team of interns the science of search engine optimization.
9. Winning all those “Jesse” Award nominations — if not the award itself
I’ve been the Susan Lucci of the Houston Chronicle. Year after year, I’ve been nominated for the “Jesse” Award for outstanding Houston journalism but I never took home the statuette. Reporter of the Year. Editor of the Year. Innovation of the Year. Blog of the Year. Multimedia Journalist of the Year. And some more that I can’t remember right now. Congrats to all the winners! As they say, it’s an honor just to be nominated.
10. An emphasis on teamwork
The Chronicle is one of the ten largest newspapers in America and has drawn, over the years, some of the most talented journalists in America. I hope I contributed to that sense of teamwork — the “we” rather than the “me” — that leads to great journalism. My DC colleague Stewart Powell has been the consummate professional and a willing teammate on Houston stories. Energy expert Jennifer Dlouhy has “taken one for the team” numerous times — I’ll remember those emails at 10:30 on Sunday night as she gets a head start on the week ahead.
Special kudos to super-editor George Haj, who has the best news judgment of any editor I’ve ever worked with, Jacquee Petchel, the best investigative and projects editor in the USA, now teaching the next generation at Arizona State, Ernie Williamson, the best election night editor there ever was, Alan Bernstein, who has a deeper knowledge of Houston politics (and Chron politics) than anybody else in town, Peggy Fikac, the hardest working reporter in Texas, Dwight Silverman, the tech wizard and my favorite web consultant, and Patti Kilday Hart, my partner in journalistic crime in Dallas, Austin and Houston.