Welcome back to our annual year-end awards column!
In case you missed it, Part 1 of our "McLaughlin Awards" (named for the television show where we get these categories, of course) ran last week, so check it out.
Destined For Political Stardom
If I was taking the category literally here, I would award this to Kim Jong Un, the dictator-in-waiting in North Korea. In the first-ever-of-its-kind dynastic communist state (I don't think Marx or Lenin approved much of familial royalty-style dynasties, personally, but what do I know?), the third in the line of Kim Jong Il (father) and Kim Il Sung (grandfather) certainly is destined for a personality-cult stardom in North Korea, one way or another.
In our own dynastic political world, here in America, we have our runner-up for the "political stardom" award, none other than Rand Paul, son of the revered-by-libertarians Ron Paul. Paul (the younger) just won a Senate seat, besting Paul (the elder) who is only a lowly House member. On the Republican side of the aisle, though, Rand Paul seems destined for much more attention than most incoming freshmen senators -- due to his last name, but also due to some (shall we say) creative ideological positions he took during the campaign. One way or another, my bet is that Rand Paul's name is going to be in the news a lot in the coming year.
But the real winner of Destined For Political Stardom is Florida's new Republican senator, Marco Rubio. Senator-Elect Marco Rubio has a lot of things going for him -- he's telegenic, a good campaigner, and he won an impressive victory in a tough three-way race. But Rubio's got two other things going for him as well. First, he was one of the earliest career-politician Republicans to recognize the power of the Tea Party movement. Rubio's no newcomer to his state's political scene (the way a lot of Tea Party candidates were, last year), but he latched onto the Tea Party energy from the beginning, and beat a very popular ex-governor who many predicted to win the three-way race (because he had such high general approval ratings). But the main reason why Rubio is indeed destined for political stardom is that he's Hispanic. From what is possibly the only group of Hispanics in America where Republicans still can count on a lot of support -- Cuban-Americans.
Look for Marco Rubio to be on every Republican presidential candidate's short list for vice president, in about a year-and-a-half's time. Because, unless he flares out early in some way, Marco Rubio is destined (at the very least) to be a serious contender for the veep slot.
Destined For Political Oblivion
Rod Blagojevich seemed destined for oblivion at the beginning of 2010, but he just keeps popping up in the least-likely places, like reality television, and in (you just can't make this stuff up) a television commercial for nuts. Heh.
I could pick an outgoing Democratic senator, such as Russ Feingold, but Democrats have suffered enough this year, don't you think? It really would be kind of "salt in the wound."
So, instead, let's rub that salt in where we can all enjoy the experience!
Destined For Political Oblivion goes to this year's "Witchy Woman," the irrepressible Republican candidate for the Senate from Delaware -- Christine O'Donnell.
Best Political Theater
There were a few good moments from the past year, and because the field was so crowded, we're going to hand out three Best Political Theater awards: one on the right, one on the left, and one for sheer entertainment value. The last award will be handed out in the next category (you'll see why, don't want to let the cat out of the proverbial bag... ).
From the left, we had some good theatrical moments in the Senate this year, from Majority Leader Harry Reid pulling the old "drag out the cots and threaten to vote all night" shtick, to Senator Bernie Sanders pulling the old Mr. Smith Goes To Washington "let's have a real filibuster" act, very recently. Sanders' nine-hour speech was impressive political theater, just because this sort of thing rarely actually happens anymore. But, as stunts go, it wasn't very effective political theater in the end.
The real Best Political Theater this year from the left was President Barack Obama sitting down with the congressional leadership (including Republicans) in full view of the public (it was broadcast on C-SPAN), at one of the most crucial moments in the healthcare reform debate. This meeting was seen by the media (and most of the public) as a brilliant political victory for Obama, and it may have helped him drag healthcare reform across the finish line, in the end. Which made it not only good political theater, but also effective political theater -- the best kind.
On the Republican side, the Best Political Theater this year will (in my opinion) set a political trend for the future. In response to President Obama's "State Of The Union" speech, Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell was slated to give the official "response" speech. Someone bright in the governor's office had an absolutely brilliant idea -- instead of setting the "response" speaker in some boring office or some flag-draped quiet library, put him in the State Capitol -- in front of a live, cheering audience. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time anyone's done so in the history of these response speeches. My guess, though, is that this will not be the last time it is staged this way.
For good reason -- McDonnell was able to humanize the whole speech with the adoring crowd, and the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates is almost as impressive (if smaller) than the floor of the United States House of Representatives. By giving the response speech the same backdrop of an impressive speaking hall and an audience cued to applaud at certain points, McDonnell totally changed the course of State Of The Union responses forever. Which is why he wins our second Best Political Theater award here. Setting his speech the way he did was sheer political genius.
Worst Political Theater
Boy, there were a lot of nominees for Worst Political Theater this year. Sigh.
In no particular order, there was Arizona's new "Your papers, please" immigration law. The Republican "Pledge To America" campaign manifesto, which was supposed to be some sort of "Contract With America II" (but fell far short of even that lowly goal). Charlie Rangel leaving his own ethics hearing in a huff (before they eventually voted against him, and made him endure another theatrical moment -- being censured in front of the full House). Fred Phelps' collection of hate-mongers picketing such funerals as Elizabeth Edwards', and getting their case heard before the Supreme Court. South Carolina's Alvin Greene, and his entire bizarre campaign for the Senate as the Democratic nominee -- which rivaled Christine O'Donnell's in sheer strangeness. And, of course, who could forget the head of BP stating that he'd "like his life back" in response to the volcano of oil in the Gulf of Mexico his company caused. Which reminds me, later in the year, of Obama using the phrase "heck of a job" to describe his outgoing economic guru -- a phrase that, really, any politician should banish from their phrasebook forever after George W. Bush made it so memorable during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
But, in terms of bad political theater, one event stooped lower than all the others. Some hate-monger in Florida (I refuse to cite his name) decided he'd make the news by holding a down-home traditional book burning. But he figured he'd be even more provocative by burning Islam's sacred text, the Koran. He did indeed get his face in the news (due to the news at the time hyperventilating over -- as they incorrectly named it -- the "Ground Zero mosque"), in a much bigger way than even he had probably dreamed of. Eventually, he backed down and decided not to publicly torch a Koran, much to the relief of everyone everywhere. But the entire exercise was, without doubt, the Worst Political Theater of the year.
As an addendum, the Best Political Theater (subcategory: Sheer Amusement, or perhaps Most Memorable Phrase Of The Year) happened soon after. A video went viral of a foiled Koran burning -- and the words of the righteous guy who stopped it: "Dude, you have no Koran." Check it out if you haven't seen it before. Dude.
Worst Political Scandal
The obvious selection for Worst Political Scandal is WikiLeaks. But, although the leaks have so far been "scandalous" (due to the leak itself), no real political scandals have followed. Nobody's been fired, nobody has stepped down from a position of responsibility, and no truly scandalous material has really leaked out (unless you consider the fact that diplomats can, on occasion, be very undiplomatic).
But, more narrowly defining the award, Representative Charlie Rangel has to be this year's winner of Worst Political Scandal. There just weren't that many true scandals that came to light this year -- at least without the swift resignation of the person involved. Rangel's transgressions are actually old ones, as well -- none of it really happened this year. But the "paying the price" part of his scandal played out all year long, culminating in his House censure. So, almost by default, we've got to award Worst Political Scandal to Charlie Rangel.
Most Underreported Story
With our sorry excuse for a mainstream media, there were (as there almost always are) quite a number of underreported stories this year. Here's a quick list of stories you were likely to have missed from the news this year:
Barack Obama's poll ratings have stayed remarkably stable all year long.
Obama has lowered almost everyone's taxes, to the point that taxes are at their lowest point in the past 60 years.
The TARP money is being paid back, with interest. Taxpayers may make a profit out of the program, when all is said and done.
Democrats cut the deficit more than $100 billion from last year.
China is manipulating the world market for rare earth elements, which has enormous consequences since they control more than 90 percent of the supply, and since the elements are used in so many high-tech applications. The good news is that an American rare earth mine is about to reopen, which will change the entire worldwide dynamic.
Salon's true investigative journalism on the situation at Arlington National Cemetery -- which has resulted in Pentagon investigations and very high-level firings. The mainstream media actually did pick this story up briefly, but they universally forgot to mention that it was a Salon scoop. Jealous, perhaps?
A federal judge was impeached by the House of Representatives, then tried and unanimously convicted in the Senate -- only the eighth time this has happened in American history -- but the media largely yawned.
But, to my mind, the Most Underreported Story of 2010 was the Obama administration finally coming to a settlement with Native Americans and African-American farmers, for very recent (historically-speaking) discrimination. Congress approved the legal settlement of these outstanding stalled cases against the federal government, and actually appropriated the money to make good on the settlement. This story should have gotten a lot more attention than it did, especially since it was announced just before Thanksgiving. Sadly, it got almost no attention from the media whatsoever. Making it my personal choice for Most Underreported Story.
Most Overreported Story
As usual, there were far too many of these, as well.
The year started off with Washington, D.C., going through one of their periodic freakouts when more than an inch of snow appears on their pristine streets. Because of the age we live in, this was immediately given not just one but two media-friendly monikers: "Snowmaggedon" and "Snowpocalypse." Residents of areas of the country where deep snow falls more regularly were, as always, bemused by the inside-the-Beltway wimpiness when it comes to frozen water falling from the skies.
There was an all-consuming battle of the late-night talk show hosts (and their agents, and their network), but the less said about that whole donnybrook the better.
For some reason, the idea that the oil spill needed a daily counter on the news ("We're in Day Forty-Nine of the spill...") really annoyed me. Seems like the last thing the people on the Gulf needed was to be reminded of how long it had been going on, but maybe it's just me, I don't know....
But the Most Overreported Story of the year was, without any doubt, Sarah Palin. After seeing her antics all year -- and seeing the breathlessness with which the media followed said antics -- nobody should be shocked when she announces her bid for the Republican nomination for president late next year. The right couldn't get enough of their "Mama Grizzly," the left just could not ignore her every move, and the mainstream media went along for the ride -- to the extent of posting "Sarah Palin's picks" in the last election. Not to mention her (and her family... oh, but we're not supposed to mention her family, right?) appearing on every television gimmick they could manage, from reality television to... um... reality television, to Fox News.
Love her or hate her, there was just no avoiding Sarah Palin last year, even though the woman holds no political office. Which is why she was without question the Most Overreported Story of the year.
Biggest Government Waste
Funding a second -- and totally unnecessary -- engine for the military's new fighter plane springs instantly to mind here.
As do the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, of course.
But, to me, the Biggest Government Waste was the Presidential Deficit Commission. Originally a Republican idea, the blue-ribbon commission was supposed to issue a report that would be guaranteed an "up or down vote" -- without amendments -- in both houses of Congress. Then Obama was for the idea, which meant the Republicans had to be against their own idea. The GOP then blocked it in the Senate, so Obama set up his own commission. Except that there was no guarantee about any congressional vote, and no guarantee (even if it did get a vote) that whatever plan they came up with wouldn't be eviscerated by Congress.
Obama gave the commission almost a full year, with a deadline. They missed the deadline by a few days, and could not get the requisite votes to pass their plan. The plan was "dead on arrival" in Congress -- who then turned around and voted to increase the deficit and debt by a cool trillion dollars' worth of tax cuts within days of the commission's end. The whole thing was nothing more than a pointless and gigantic waste of everyone's time -- and whatever money was spent on it. The Biggest Government Waste this year was the "B/S Commission" (for Bowles/Simpson, the two co-chairs) -- apt initials if ever there were...
Best Government Dollar Spent
My initial snarky response to this was "volcano monitoring," since I remember Bobby Jindal's speech from a few years ago. Without such government spending, a whole bunch of airplanes may have fallen from Europe's skies this year, as an Icelandic volcano blew its top. [Editorial Note: If we had an award for funniest Huffington Post column of the year, Katla McGlynn's "True Life: I'm Named After An Icelandic Volcano" would easily win.]
Sadly, "extending unemployment insurance" should (once again) be included in this category. Enough said.
But the real winner of Best Government Dollar Spent were some new government dollars spent -- on setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and putting Elizabeth Warren in charge of the setup). This is exactly what most Americans want from their government -- spending government dollars looking out for their best interests, instead of Wall Street's best interests or corporate America's best interests.
Boldest Political Tactic
This category's nominees were kind of all over the map. The Tea Party continued their bold political tactics, but not in any brand new direction from last year or anything. The Republicans in Congress, likewise, continued their "Party Of No" stance, which worked out pretty well for them in the midterm elections. But again, it was a mere continuation of a tactic really begun last year.
President Obama firing General Stanley McChrystal was pretty bold, but wasn't exactly a political tactic, at least to us. The truly bold political tactic from last year from the Democrats was "finishing healthcare reform" -- but it's hard to ascertain exactly who fought for this the hardest (Nancy Pelosi? Barack Obama? Certainly not Rahm Emanuel, that's for sure...). Republicans might even award "reconciliation" as the boldest political tactic, from the aftermath of this fight in Congress.
A case could be made, as well, for the "Two-And-A-Half Blocks From Ground Zero Muslim Community Center" -- but I think it really turned out a lot bolder than the backers had originally thought (especially after, about this time last year, Fox News was saying nice things about the effort).
But, really, the Boldest Political Tactic this year was to run as a third-party candidate. The Tea Party insurgency over the establishment Republican Party was slightly erratic in the selection of electable candidates during the primary/caucus season. Two very prominent Republicans decided to test the Tea Party's strength directly, by making a third-party bid for the Senate (as well as other Republicans in statewide races). Charlie Crist lost his bold third-party bid. But Lisa Murkowski did not -- and emerged victorious not only on a third-party bid, but on a write-in campaign. Just take a look at her last name, which measures exactly how bold launching a write-in campaign was (I still stumble, occasionally, typing "Murkowski"...).
Win or lose, the idea of a Republican mounting a third-party bid to take on a Tea Party candidate was indeed the Boldest Political Tactic of the year.
There were actually quite a few good ideas from last year. President Obama giving the Pentagon a year to get on board with repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the first place. Obama naming Elizabeth Warren to set up the agency she initially proposed, thus avoiding a stupid Senate confirmation battle. The agency itself -- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform. The Environmental Protection Agency trying to bring a halt to mountaintop-removal mining (another story that was underreported, now that I think about it).
But the Best Idea last year was to get almost 100,000 American troops out of Iraq. We've still got 50,000 fighting men and women there, but Barack Obama set the pace on the initial drawdown (as opposed to the date we'll be talking about this time next year, when all U.S. forces are scheduled to be out, which was negotiated by George W. Bush right before he left office).
For setting this timetable -- and for keeping to it -- Obama wins Best Idea this year.
There were plenty of bad ideas to go around last year, as well. Afghanistan, for one, but that's an ongoing bad idea, really.
The Worst Idea, just for the idea itself, was the lone idiot who crashed a plane into an I.R.S. office in Texas early this year.
The healthcare reform "individual mandate" was a pretty bad idea.
Democrats pushing so much important stuff out to the lame duck Congress was a really bad idea, even if some of turned out not so bad.
Rand Paul's "underground electric border fence (with helicopters!)" was a monumentally stupid idea, even if he never did define exactly what the heck he was talking about.
Beau Biden's too-clever-by-half decision to sit out the Delaware Senate race (because everyone knew that Mike Castle would defeat Christine O'Donnell for the Republican nomination) was a pretty bad idea, in retrospect -- one the son of Vice President Joe Biden is likely still kicking himself over.
But the absolute worst idea was the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Seriously, guys, what were you thinking? So much for the right's supposed opposition to "activist judges," as the conservative wing of the court threw out 100 years' worth of corporate elections law, in the Worst Idea of 2010.
Sorry To See You Go
There are a number of ways to read this category. In the "sorry to see you have to leave the spotlight" meaning of the phrase, I would include Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson, both of whom failed to win reelection to Congress (as well as a lot of other worthy Democrats).
In a similar, non-organic way, I was sorry to see Kodachrome film exit the shelves. As I was to see the world record in wind speed leave America -- a record that had been held since 1934 by the weather observatory on the top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington; where they clocked an astounding 231 miles-per-hour breeze over 75 years ago. This year, however, the World Meteorological Organization announced they had confirmed a reading which had happened 14 years earlier during Typhoon Olivia, on an unmanned weather station on Barrow Island, Australia -- "blowing away" the old record with a screaming 253 mph.
In the more traditional "people who have died this year" meaning of the Sorry To See You Go category, we had a number of folks exit the stage forever.
Dennis Hopper, for instance. Senator Robert C. Byrd. Richard Holbrooke. Al Haig, who doubtlessly arrived in the afterlife proclaiming he was in charge.
But, on a personal level, two deaths in the past year were memorable for us here. The first was the sad passing of Fred Morrison, who invented the "Pluto Platter" flying disc toy, later to be known as the "Frisbee." A twenty-one "150-gram Wham-O! Master Tournament Model" Frisbee salute is entirely in order, we feel.
And the second winner of our personal Sorry To See You Go was the demise of renowned artist Frank Frazetta. The column I wrote in his memory has lots of his artworks displayed, but the one that everyone immediately recognizes is also entirely appropriate, in a black-humor sort of way. Click here to see it.
15 Minutes Of Fame
Just to be very clear, here, I am awarding the 15 Minutes Of Fame award to an event, not a person.
Jon Stewart's much-hyped rally in Washington this year was supposed to be some sort of awakening of a new political movement to counter the Tea Party folks. At least, that's what a lot of people thought, convinced of this by the media coverage. But when it happened, the rally turned out to be nothing much more than an few hours' entertainment. Billed jointly with Stephen Colbert as the "Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear" it certainly was a fun day for all concerned.
But, when the dust on the Mall had settled, no political "movement" remained. Glenn Beck's initial rally, and the Stewart/Colbert spoof, will perhaps usher in an era of media personalities testing the resolve of their own audiences to show up in Washington, D.C.; but not much more can be said about them. Meaning they're nothing more than the best example of Andy Warhol's original idea -- 15 Minutes Of Fame.
"America has the best healthcare system in the world."
What a colossal joke. Meaning, Best Spin.
Most Honest Person
Lieutenant Dan Choi.
Lt. Choi was honest on The Rachel Maddow Show, and he was kicked out of the military as a result, because what he was so honest about was the fact that he's gay. Choi didn't just accept this turn of events, though. He demonstrated anywhere and any way he thought would shine a light on the injustice of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of kicking fine Americans like himself out of our armed services. He chained himself to the White House fence. He got himself arrested for civil disobedience. He was going to demonstrate at the Netroots Nation Lefty blogger conference, but then was invited inside by Harry Reid. Choi then gave Harry his personal West Point ring to hold onto -- until Harry had passed a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Reid was just recently able to return Choi's ring, and Lt. Choi went from chaining himself to the White House's fence to being invited to President Obama's signing ceremony for the repeal law this year -- a pretty extraordinary journey, when you think about it.
All due to his honesty, and due to refusing to give up drawing people's attention to the matter. Well done, Lt. Choi, well done. Most Honest Person, indeed.
I could say "Sarah Palin," but I've already dinged her here, I guess.
There are some other obvious choices, as well:
The Tea Party Republicans.
Obama's communication skills.
The concept of deficit-cutting (lots of lip service, but not a lot of follow-through).
The previously-mentioned B/S Commission.
Earmarks (as being some sort of huge deal).
But, in our eyes there is one standout in the Most Overrated category:
Even lefty pundits had completely written off Lieberman's attempt to successfully repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" this year. But Joe showed them all how the game in the Senate is supposed to be played -- as he did exactly one year ago today (much to the Left's dismay), when he killed the "public option" for good.
Don't underrate Joe Lieberman, that's the lesson here. Especially in December.
My predictions from last year, as always, so we can see how bad my guesswork truly is:
Obama will end the year with better approval ratings than he began.
Midterms will be bad for Democrats, but not as bad as some predict. Democrats lose 15 seats in the House and only two in the Senate.
Harry Reid loses reelection.
Chuck Schumer will be next Democratic leader in Senate.
Afghanistan will continue to be a mess.
The Guantanamo prison will close.
There will be a major "wardrobe malfunction" on television, at some point during the year.
The Tea Party will become a true third party, then self-destruct before 2012.
And finally, an easy prediction -- the mainstream media will continue to miss the real story, over and over and over again, in the rush to splash sensationalistic crap all over America's consciousness.
OK, let's score those. Obama's approval ratings are worse now than a year ago. Midterms were worse for Democrats than people were predicting last year. Harry Reid got reelected (meaning the Schumer pick wasn't even an issue). Afghanistan is still a mess, but this was kind of a non-prediction, so we're not even going to count it. Guantanamo is still open. No "wardrobe malfunction" to be seen, and America's youth spent the year safe from the horrible, horrible trauma of seeing anyone's inadvertent nipple. The Tea Party became the Tea Party Republicans, instead of forming a third party.
Well, OK, I guessed right on the last one, but that's not saying much.
I think that's my worst year ever for predictions, as I went pretty much zero-for-seven.
Oh, well, it's not going to keep me from staring into the old crystal ball once again. Here are my predictions for 2011:
The Tea Party faction and the establishment Republicans are going to have several large battles about what Congress should do next year. This intra-party fracas will make the Blue Dogs' fight with Democrats over the last two years look tame, by comparison.
But -- surprising almost everyone -- the 212th Congress will be a lot more productive than anyone now expects. President Obama will work with Senate Republicans to pass significant legislation that carries narrowly in the House. The House will wind up being the biggest battleground to getting things done, rather than the traditional obstructionism in the Senate.
President Obama's approval rating will finally rebound, and early in 2011 his job approval numbers will be better than his job disapproval numbers once again -- reversing months of "being underwater."
On the election front, Haley Barbour declines to run for the Republican nomination. So does Newt Gingrich (once again -- he's played this coy game before, remember). Sarah Palin announces her candidacy quite late in the year -- since she is the one candidate who doesn't have to worry about nationwide "name recognition," and since it'll allow her to snipe from the sidelines for as long as possible before becoming a real candidate.
And a final prediction: President Obama will not get any serious primary challenge. Oh, sure, people like Dennis Kucinich may run -- but no Democratic heavyweight will do so, clearing the field for Obama.
New Year's Resolution
I only made half of last year's resolution come true, which was never to do these columns on a holiday again. Oh, well, happy Christmas Eve, everyone!
Next year, I resolve to write more columns, and possibly even write another book.
And now, true to the McLaughlin protocol, I bid you:
For your convenience, here are all the previous years of these columns as well:
Follow Chris Weigant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisWeigant