Top ten U.S. political winners and losers of 2015

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Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, these were the GOP presidential frontrunners.

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:

Scott Walker

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

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.

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A tearful final act for House Speaker John Boehner

John Boehner

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.

Jeb Bush

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.)

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The hits keep on coming: CNBC’s panel was roundly criticized by Republicans after a contentious presidential debate … and by some non-Republicans, too.

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.

Fox News

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.

Aaron Schock

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Schock and Awful

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 …

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Total victory at the Supreme Court

Marriage equality

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.

Big Oil

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.”

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Tough questions

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.

Paul Ryan

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.

Ted Cruz

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.

Mitch McConnell

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.”

Joe Biden

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.


Analysis: Why Xi Jinping’s summit with Barack Obama is more important than you may think

Analyzing the summit for CCTV.

Analyzing the summit for CCTV. You can watch the entire Dialogue program here.

This week’s summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama has been overshadowed in the United States by the historic visit by Pope Francis — and then the sudden resignation of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. But the China-U.S. summit is likely to have broader and longer-lasting implications on both the global economy and geopolitical matters.

Here is my analysis of the high stakes and — at least for leaders in China — high hopes for the summit. It is in a Q&A format based on questions formulated by China Radio International designed to stimulate a roundtable discussion on its Today program.

Q: Xi Jinping’s first speech upon arriving in Seattle was peppered with U.S. cultural references, including the film Sleepless in Seattle and the television series House of Cards. He also shared some personal experiences, like his life as a visiting student in Iowa. Do you think the personal touches went down well with his American audience?

China US flags

A: It’s always good to drop a few cultural references — though I will say that House of Cards may be more popular in China than it is in the U.S. At Tsinghua University, where I work in the Global Business Journalism program, everyone wants to know if it’s an accurate depiction of American politics and journalism.

More seriously, President Xi definitely connected with his business audience of leaders of major technology companies — and I think that is a big win for future partnerships with the tech and aerospace industries.

Q: Since China and the U.S. established diplomatic ties, only four Chinese presidents have paid state visits to the U.S.: Li Xianian in 1985, Jiang Zemin in 1997, and Hu Jintao in 2006 and 2011. We now have the fifth. How different is this one: what has changed and what remains the same in bilateral relations?

A: The biggest visit from a Chinese leader was not even a state visit, it was from Deng Xiaoping, who was vice chairman, not president.

What is the same? The desire of the leaders of both countries to deepen economic and cultural ties. The differences: the end of the Cold War, the rise of China’s economy (even with current uncertainties) and the increasing importance of China on the global diplomatic and military front. Also, for much of the relationship, China and the U.S. used each other as a wedge against the Soviet Union and then Russia. Now China and Russia are closer in a geopolitical sense than China and the U.S.

Presidents Obama and Xi walk from the White House to Blair House for dinner on Sept. 24.

Presidents Obama and Xi walk from the White House to Blair House for dinner on Sept. 24.

Q: Apart from political rhetoric and media outcries, what really makes the two giants like each other and what turns them apart?

A: The leaders like each other. The countries share mutual respect, win-win economic ties and a concern for future of the world economy. The issues that drive them apart include economic competition, Taiwan, U.S. criticism about human rights issues and U.S. military alliances (particularly with Japan).

Q: Is there anything special about the personal relationship between Obama and Xi Jinping? They twice have discussed ideologies and history. The pictures of them walking on the Sunnylands Ranch in 2013 and their late evening stroll indicates some mutual understanding of the top jobs.

A: They have definitely connected on an intellectual level and it’s clear from the body language that they like and respect each other. You don’t see the same thing when President Obama and Russian President Putin get together.

Q: Xi Jinping’s visit comes at a time when geopolitical conditions in East Asia have evolved to a very subtle point. The Obama administration declared to its “Pivot-to-Asia” diplomacy shift in 2012. Tensions have been growing in the region with Shinzo Abe seeking to expand Japan’s overseas military role and several Southeast Asian nations embroiling themselves into a territorial dispute with Beijing. Is the timing of the trip too tough?

A: There’s never a perfect time for a trip. Japanese assertiveness on military matters, issues in the South and East China Seas, cyberspying all have created some tensions. The slowdown of China’s growth also has created some uncertainty on the economic side. But there are many important things the two countries can do to benefit each other and the world situation, economically and geopolitically.

Q: How does China fit into the current global strategy of the United States? And vice versa?

A: That’s a complicated pair of questions. The U.S. has not taken part in the AIIB — the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank — and tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to launch a Trans-Pacific Partnership anchored by the U.S., Japan and Korea. But despite those problems, both countries are eager to welcome investment from the other nation to help grow jobs in their countries. And both are interested in improving the economies of Africa, where both have invested a substantial amount of soft-power capital.

In terms of geopolitics, the U.S. believes that China is a key player in resolving almost all of the most difficult international issues of the day, from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East. The U.S. wants China as a leading player and not a marginalized actor.

Q: China has been very active in recent years on both political and economic fronts. Despite a global economic slowdown, China still manages to maintain a GDP growth at around 7 percent over the years and is now the world’s second largest economy, right after the U.S. Since Xi Jinping came to power, China has proposed several international cooperation mechanisms such as the AIIB, the New Development Bank, the Land and Maritime Silk Road Initiative and so on, taking more responsibility in regional and international affairs. What do you make of the U.S. reaction to this?

A: I think the U.S. should be more welcoming and more cooperative — while realizing that some tension and competition is natural. I’m not sure how much of this reflects the concerns of Japan about China’s growing influence and how much is Washington policymakers’ policy concerns. The world economy should allow for both nations to grow — it’s not a zero-sum game.

The two presidents take questions from the U.S. and Chinese media on Sept. 25.

The two presidents take questions from the U.S. and Chinese media on Sept. 25.

Q: How much damage has been caused by conflicts between the two?

A: There have always been tensions and there still are. Taiwan was and will be a continuing strain, but the strain has been handled by both nations with mutual effort. Both nations have accused the other of spying, and they have had strong words about military actions in the South China and seas. But they have kept their disagreements civil and kept them in perspective. The shared goals of the two nations are much more important than the continuing differences.

Q: What’s the way to bring China-U.S. relations to a new level while properly handling these conflicts?

A: Agree to disagree about some things and work on the issues where progress can be made. A bilateral investment treaty is good for both countries and should not be blocked because of American fears about cybersecurity. However, international companies need to reach a comfort level that their trade secrets would not be compromised if they do business in China.

Q: China and the U.S. both shoulder responsibilities in dealing with major international issues, like the Iran nuclear issue, the North Korean nuclear issue, climate change and so on. What’s a more constructive way for the two sides to cooperate in order to solve these difficult problems?

A: I would hope that we hear more about this from President Xi at the United Nations. The key thing is more and higher-profile Chinese involvement alongside the U.S. and Russia. Korea is a very difficult problem and can only be resolved if China and the U.S. are in complete agreement about the future of the peninsula.

Q: Leaders from both countries have been exchanging visits regularly in history. When people reflect back in the future, how do you think they will think about this visit?

A: To use President Xi’s words, it was the first summit of the major-power relationship era. In my view, the most important meetings between the nation’s leaders were in 1972, when President Nixon came to Beijing, 1979, with Deng Xiaoping, when China was beginning to reshape its economy, and 1998, when Bill Clinton visited China as China was emerging as a global economic power. To me, this is the logical fourth leg of the chair — and could steady the relationship for the decade to come, whoever is elected president of the U.S. next year.

Photo opp with CRI crew and fellow guests after the Today program on Sept. 25.

Photo op with CRI crew and fellow guests after the Today program on Sept. 25. You can listen here.

Q: Several economic deals are being announced this week during the visit, including companies such as Boeing and Cisco. How significant are these deals? Can economic and trade links still function as the main stabilizer of the overall China-U.S. relations?

A: Yes. Economic ties and trade not only will help the two nations but the global economy. The world economy may be more dependent on Chinese economic growth than U.S., particularly nations of Africa and Central and East Asia.

Q: Moody’s Analytics’ chief economist has calculated that every 1 percentage point drop in Chinese growth reduces U.S. economic growth by 0.2 percent. This is equal to the price of oil going up $20 a barrel. How interrelated and interdependent are the two economies?

A: I agree with Moody’s. Of course, the Chinese people are hurt more than the American people by any slump in the Chinese economy, but there is a ripple effect in this interdependent world. I think that the African and East Asian economies would suffer more by a prolonged slump in China, but the U.S. would feel it.

Q: China has been on a path towards reforming its economy. How important are China’s economic reforms to the U.S. economy and that of the world?

A: Internal reform in China is important to the U.S. — not reform for reform’s sake, but reform that makes the Chinese economy more efficient and reform that creates more disposable income in China and more markets for global goods. Also, reforms in rule of law and protection of intellectual property are very important to the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Q: Given the moves last month on the value of the RMB, how much of an issue is that in the relationship now?

A: Although some Republican presidential candidates have criticized China’s devaluation of the RMB as currency manipulation, most global economists do not believe that, and neither does the Obama administration. This was a legitimate issue in 1999, but times have changed. The IMF has stated that the RMB has shown signs of floating with the market, and I think the U.S. administration appreciates that.

The first families wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House.

The first families wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House.

Q: China and the U.S. respectively have proposed different international economic entities. China proposed the AIIB and the New Development Bank, while the U.S. is pushing forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In what ways can these two countries and these different entities cooperate, especially in terms of global financial institutions reform?

A: It would be ideal to unify these partnerships, and I think that is likely at some time. But it might take a decade or more. International financial institutions are in serious need of reform. I’m not optimistic that such reform is coming in the near term, but it is inevitable in the long term.

Q: The U.S. Federal Reserve recently made a decision to delay an interest rate rise. How much did China’s current economic situation factor into the decision?

A: It played a role — along with the continuing economic softness in Europe. The Fed is ready to raise rates, but it remembers when its rate increases in previous decades created panic in Mexico and other emerging markets. So it is acting more cautious now. However, rate hikes are a near certainty over the next year.

Q: How does the decision affect the Chinese economy? How much should the Fed take such affects into account when making these decisions about the U.S. economy?

A: The impact should be minor, more psychological than real, more based on speculation than reality.

Q: In recent times, U.S. companies and business associations have mentioned issues of market access, national security and cyber-security laws, and potential requirements to hand over corporate security materials. Chinese tech companies like Huawei faces similar problems in the U.S. What can be done about this?

A: Talk about it honestly and openly, as has been going on. Agreeing on a treaty that would provide “rules of the road” for cybersecurity. That’s a first step. The agreement may not be unveiled this week, but a framework for future action is possible.

Q: Another on-going item is the bilateral investment treaty, or BIT, between the two nations. What are the main challenges, and how should they be overcome?

A: The main challenges are rule of law, cybersecurity, openness of U.S. markets to Chinese companies and openness of Chinese markets, particularly financial, to U.S. companies. Prolonged negotiations will be needed to resolve them, but both sides want to achieve results, so I’d be optimistic.

Q: In terms of a compromise, might we see a type of “cyber arms deal” being reached, which would help establish which kinds of cyber attacks could be outlawed – attacks on civilian infrastructure, for example?

A: Yes, that’s exactly right. Government on government spying has always existed. But companies want assurances that they will be able to do business without fear of corporate espionage.

XI Jinping is honored in Iowa, where he lived several decades ago.

Before becoming China’s president, Xi Jinping visited Iowa, where he lived several decades ago.

Q: One of China’s most wanted economic fugitives – Yang Jinyun – was returned to the country by the U.S. last week. This marked the first time China has succeeded in repatriating a wanted corruption suspect from the U.S., with whom it has no extradition treaty. Has Yang Jinyun’s repatriation laid an important foundation for bilateral cooperation, or is it just a separate move done only as an olive branch for a presidential trip?

A: It is symbolic but it also is part of a series of concrete actions by the United States to help China in cases of corruption-related fugitives. The U.S. Justice Department has shown a willingness to help China deal with corruption cases, which are different than political cases.

Q: Beyond all specifics, the fundamental question has always been: What does the rise of China mean to the USA, and vice versa? What should Xi Jinping say to Obama? “I have no intention to challenge the existing world order.” What should Obama say to Xi Jinping? “Play the second fiddle.”

A: No, there is no need to talk about who is number one and who is number two. It is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. The leaders must show each other and their nation’s respect. I think that exists. Xi Jinping doesn’t have to make any assurances about the existing world order. The new world order is emerging — and everyone knows it. There is no reason for irrational concern on either nation’s part. The leadership of both countries — economic, diplomatic and moral — is vital.

>> Link to CCTV Dialogue program:

>> Link to CRI Today program:

Top ten losers — and a few winners — in the DC debt ceiling debacle

We're THIS close to a solution, folks.

We’re THIS close to a solution, folks.

As the newest American political analyst on Chinese national television, I’ve been asked to explain the U.S. government shutdown and default showdown.

It’s not easy.

How do you explain the farce that Washington has become? Lawmakers shutting down the government because of an issue not directly related to spending. Hostage-taking is for terrorists, not for Republicans.

International observers are even more baffled by the brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. Why, I am asked over and over, would congressional Republicans threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, risk a relapse into recession and jeopardize a very tenuous economic recovery around the world? Why would they, through their illogical enterprise, encourage other nations to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency, which will do nothing but create inflation at home, make borrowing more expensive for the American government and American consumers, and stifle foreign investment in the United States? And why is President Barack Obama incapable of rescuing the nation from the tar pit of Capitol Hill.

It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Are there any winners in the Washington wackiness? Not really, though there are some short-term gainers. Here’s my long list of losers and short list of winners in the continuing congressional catastrophe.

John Boehner

The House Speaker looks like a hostage being forced to read a script by his radical captors. He looks weary. He looks very, very sad.

Barack Obama

He looks weak.

House Republicans

They look extreme. Actually, they look beyond extreme. And incompetent.

The Tea Party

Did we mention extreme? The current situation is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era saying, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Senate Republicans

They look weak, too, as the Tea Party tail continues to wag the Republican dog.

The Republican Party

The Grand Old Party is lurching toward the political cliff in the 2014 midterm elections. Its best asset: gerrymandered House districts. Its best ally: discombobulated Democrats.

Joe Biden

Who? Nonexistent.

The United States.

Forget partisan politics. Congress has made the U.S. an international laughingstock. The double showdown has led to grave global doubts about the reliability of the United States and the leadership skill (and power) of its president. So this will hurt the country for a long, long time and its president — whoever that may be, Democrat or Republican.

The U.S. economy

In the short run, thousands of Americans are without paychecks, tourism revenue has plunged and consumer confidence has taken a hit. Businesses have another reason to hold off on hiring. In the long run, interest rates will be higher and loans will be even harder to obtain for individual Americans and corporations alike. And they call Republicans the pro-growth party?

The global economy

The self-induced crisis in Washington has shaken global confidence in the United States If American lawmakers blunder into a default (still unimaginable from my distant vantage point), it would almost certain trigger an international recession as China, Japan, Brazil, the EU and other leading U.S. creditors take a massive hit. The consequences would be so severe that it’s not even worth contemplating.

The U.S. Congress wouldn’t do something so wantonly self-destructive, would they?

Would they?

Remember Smoot-Hawley? Call this modern-day version Cruz-Boehner.


Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell

There really are no winners in Washington, but the closest thing to it are the Senate leaders. Instead of acting like squabbling partisans, they are playing the role of sober cops coming to restore order after a frat party has descended into anarchy and drunken debauchery. Officers Reid and McConnell, your country needs you. Now.

Ted Cruz

In the short term, the freshman senator from Texas has become the hero of the ultraright, the face of Fox News, the Earl Grey of the Tea Party. In the long run, he will have to overcome the first impression of two-thirds of Americans (who know who he is) that he is a right-wing ideologue. Polls show that he’s poison among independent and swing voters outside of the Lone Star State.

House Democrats

They are only winners because House Republicans look so, so bad. The Dems haven’t won any awards for profiles in courage or bipartisan bridge building. Except another Bridge to Nowhere.


Ratings are way, way up at the nation’s favorite cable channel for nerds and policy wonks. Heck, it’s the most bizarre reality show on television. And, unlike the Kardashians, it has real-world consequences.


The government in Beijing has won in two ways (so far). First, President Obama canceled his Asia trip, allowing first-year Chinese President Xi to be the star of the show at APEC. And China-bashing Washington Republicans have succeeded in making Beijing the victim of irresponsible fiscal policies in free-enterprise America that could lead to default. A bizarre lesson in capitalism.

The most prominent American political figures in the global media — and a dozen who get no respect

President Obama at my last White House press conference in August. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

President Obama at my last White House press conference in August. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

After covering the White House and the U.S. Congress for 29 years — and being inside the 24/7 news bubble — it’s fascinating to be, for the first time, on the outside looking in.

Here’s a new outsider’s perspective on which American politicians figure most prominently around the world, and which DC figures vanish from the media scene when you cross the Pacific.

America’s Face around the World

1. President Barack Obama

The president is the president. He gets global press on some stories that earn barely a ripple in America-centered domestic media.

2. Secretary of State John Kerry

He didn’t get elected president, but his stentorian voice is everywhere on international issues. He comes across as knowledgeable, poised and, well, diplomatic.

3. House Speaker John Boehner

The Ohio Republican is the scowling face of the opposition. His soundbites are almost all partisan and negative. Not much of an image to project.

4. Sen. Ted Cruz

The first-year lawmaker from Texas has exploded onto the international stage as the leader of America’s ultraconservatives, which the global media love to highlight. Even people who don’t understand the concept of a filibuster understand that Cruz is the man who shut down the federal government. And he’s not even president.

5. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew

The American media almost never cover the charismatically challenged Treasury Secretary. Most Americans know him as the man with the illegible signature. But he’s often on TV and Internet news reports around the world. He comes across as measured and authoritative.

6. Hillary Clinton

The former U.S. Secretary of State is treated as America’s president-in-waiting. She’s also covered like the leader of the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party, as opposed to the dove-ish Obama.

The Dead-to-the-World Dozen

1. Vice President Joe Biden

Never mentioned. Well, almost never.

2. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell

Who is less important than the minority leader of a body that has been eclipsed by the hard-right Republicans in the other chamber?

3. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi

Maybe the only person less important than the Senate Minority Leader is the House Minority Leader.

4. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

He only appears on international TV when he comes up with his sound-bite zingers tearing into the Republicans.

5. Sen. John McCain

A media darling in the U.S., his mavericky style doesn’t translate to an international audience.

6. Sarah Palin

The only thing people in Asia remember about 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee is the report in Game Change that she didn’t know the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries.

7. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the Fox News crowd

They may get good ratings in the USofA, but they don’t exist outside of its borders. And that’s probably fine with them.

8. Sen. Marco Rubio

The Florida freshman’s mystique hasn’t stretched to Asia and Europe, only Latin America and South America.

9. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

There’s only room for one face of the opposition on international TV, and that’s John Boehner, not his (occasionally) loyal deputy from Virginia.

10. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Barack Obama and John Kerry speak for the U.S. on global issues. The Pentagon chief is a bit player on the international stage.

11. White House press secretary Jay Carney

President Obama’s spokesman, a ubiquituous presence on domestic media, makes only cameo appearances on media outlets outside the U.S.

12. The U.S. Trade Representative

Who is the U.S. trade rep anyway? There are lots of trade stories, but the U.S. Commerce Secretary and U.S. Trade Representative are never quoted. Only Obama or Kerry.


My final White House pool report: Inside the Cabinet Room as President Obama meets with congressional leaders on Syria


President Obama meets with a bipartisan delegation of congressional leaders. (White House pool photo by Rick Dunham)

On my final day at the Houston Chronicle, I was fortunate enough to have White House pool duty, where I witnessed up close the debate over possible military action against Syria. Here is the pool report I filed to fellow reporters:

In-town Pool Report #1

Meeting with Congressional Leaders, Pool Spray

Tuesday,  September 3

With the Obama administration ramping up its efforts to persuade Congress (and the American people) to back a resolution supporting a U.S. military response in Syria, President Obama met with a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers in the Cabinet Room.

A tight pool got a glimpse inside at the top of the meeting. (Check TV video for more precise quotes and more atmospherics.)

The President was seated between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on his left, and House Speaker John Boehner, on his right. Flanking Pelosi were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Eliot Engel. Flanking Boehner were National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Sen. Bob Menendez.

Vice President Joe Biden sat directly across the table from the President. The VP brushed his fingers across his temples and held his hands clased in front of his mouth as the President spoke.

Secretary of State John Kerry, seated at one end of the table next to Rep. Engel, sat with his hands clasped in front of his chin.

2013-09-03 09.55.24

John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi flanked President Obama at the White House this morning, then endorsed action against Syria. (Pool photo by Rick Dunham)

White House press secretary Jay Carney stood behind Kerry.

The congressional leaders sat without expression throughout the President’s six minutes of public remarks.

President Obama began speaking at 9:52 a.m. EDT, summarizing his case that Syria “should be held to account” for what he said was clear evidence of chemical weapons use.

“I made a clear decision that America should take action, ” he said.

He then addressed the congressional leaders,  calling for hearings and a “prompt vote” on a Syria resolution.

“The key point that I want to emphasize to the American people,” President Obama said in the take-away quote (check transcript for accuracy): “It is proportional,  it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.  This is not Iraq. Thos is not Afghanistan. This is a clear proportional response…”

The President responded to one question,  saying the U.S. “will be more effective” if Congress approves a resolution. President Obama said “I’m confident” Congress will act.

The pool was ushered out at 9:58 as the President twice said, “Thank you, guys.”

 He then started the meeting by saying “good to see you, Buck” to Rep. Buck McKeon.

 Other lawmakers in attendance were Sens. John Cornyn, Bob Corker and Carl Levin, plus Reps. Kevin McCarthy,  Ed Royce, Dutch Ruppersberger.

White House reps also included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, James Clapper, General Martin Dempsey, Rob Nabors, Ben Rhodes, Miguel Rodriguez,  Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, per pool wranglers.

 Some of the lawmakers may speak at the stakeout after the meeting. Open press.

The lawmakers -- and the camera people -- had left the White House stakeout point when I decided to give farewell remarks. (Photo by Sarah Ferris)

The lawmakers — and the camera people — had left the White House stakeout point when I decided to give farewell remarks. (Photo by Sarah Ferris)

 On a personal note,  today is my final day with the Houston Chronicle. I am heading to Beijing tomorrow to teach multimedia journalism and run the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University’s graduate school of journalism. It has been an honor and privilege to cover the White House for most of the past 29 years.

I’d like to salute the hard-working White House correspondents who strive for transparency, access and information. And I’d like to wish Godspeed to President Obama, my (very) distant cousin on the Dunham side. My grandfather Barrows Dunham and President Obama were both known as Barry to their schoolmates,  but the comparisons end there.

Good luck to all!

Rick Dunham

Houston Chronicle