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.
Yang Rui: How do these midterm elections damage what President Obama wants to do in the remaining two years?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think right now we’re in for a period of tension, we’re in for a period of confrontation between Congress and the President. The Republicans in Congress think President Obama is weak and they’re going to push very hard for their agenda. They’re going to see how far they can push him. I think the White House will want to reach out a bit more, but I think it’s going to be much harder for the White House to reach out because Republicans think he is weak.
Yang Rui: I believe you must have followed the midterm elections very closely. Anything that surprised you despite the results themselves that are not so surprising?
Rick Dunham: No, I actually was not surprised at the Republicans’ sweep of the Senate. Historically, you look back at almost every big wave election year and you have one party winning almost all the close elections, and Republicans only lost one of them –in New Hampshire. What I was surprised at in this election was the incompetent campaign run by the Democratic National Committee and the White House. There were never on the offensive and they let the Republicans attack President Obama. They almost had no positive message during the campaign. That really surprised me. I haven’t seen a campaign this bad since 1980.
Yang Rui: Exactly 20 years ago, President Clinton was facing the majority that Republicans enjoyed in the two chambers of the Congress. What happened was the shutdown of the federal government and the standoff between Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, and the president himself. Now, last year we saw the partial shut down of the federal government, do you think we are likely to see it another repeat of the shutdown?
Rick Dunham: I think it’s highly likely. We saw a short shutdown last year but I think the Republicans are going to push the president to the brink and see if he capitulates. I think it’s almost certain that we’re going to see a shutdown. President Obama is going to have to veto Republican legislation and then force a compromise.
Yang Rui: What are the major obstacles or issues that may be a test of the bipartisan wrangling?
Rick Dunham: I think that number one will be government spending. The Republicans will try to cut the amount of government spending and particularly programs the president likes. The second big one is health care — the president’s health reform law of 2010. House Republicans voted 40 times already to repeal it. I think that the Senate Republicans will try now to push the president and force him to veto.
Yang Rui: Well that’s very bad. Now I start thinking about what I read from Francis Fukuyama, the guy who is the author of The End of History. Now, ironically he wrote in another book, it’s about political decay in U.S. domestic politics, meaning the architect of American constitution was able to restrict powers but they have not been able to create powers, and that has delivered a lot of friction and frustrations between the two parties. And the efficiency of the government, all at different levels, has been seriously compromised.
Rick Dunham: Well, I agree with the conclusion, but not necessarily his reasoning to get to the conclusion. I think that we see this kind of gridlock in the United States and dysfunctional democracy largely for two reasons. One is the amount out of money in politics that is making it difficult to pass anything. And the second issue is that you have partisan media in the United States. You have a fracture of the traditional media and you have people who get information that’s based on their own preconceived notions. So the country is deeply divided now and it’s very hard to have commonality because you have people on one side going to Fox News and on the other side going to CNN or National Public Radio, and you don’t really have a common area where they can reach agreement.
Yang Rui: And there are very serious disagreements between couples under the same roof.
Rick Dunham: Huge gender gap. Men overwhelmingly voted for Republican this election, women voted just about evenly, Democrat and Republican.
Yang Rui: Then there is the situation with the low turnout.
Rick Dunham: There has been a problem with turnout in America starting in 1990s. There was a spike up when Barack Obama ran in 2008. Turnout was the highest in 20 years but it has gone back down to its pre-2008 levels, and the biggest drop of was minority voters, black Americans and Hispanic voters, both of them heavily Democratic.
Black voters voted nine to one for Democrats but the turnout was far down from where it was, which cost the Democrats the governorship of Florida, it cost them the Senate seat in North Carolina. Those very narrow losses in those states were result of very low minority turnout.
Yang Rui: What do you think of the impact of the midterm upheavals on the presidential election two years from now?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think it’s a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Now there’s no guarantee that she will be the nominee but if she is, the good news for her is that now people are going to be looking at the Republicans, and probably if there’s a backlash in two years it could be against the Republican Congress as opposed to focusing all about President Obama.
The bad news for Democrats is that this election proves that the Democratic electoral majority that elected Barak Obama twice is not strong and is not permanent. The Democrats have to go back and convince minority voters to turn out and they have to go back and convince more women to vote Democratic.
Yang Rui: Thank you very much for joining us.
Here’s a link to the video of the full interview: http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/06/VIDE1415219400635230.shtml
Thanks to Jade Ladal for her work on the transcript.