For the next two weeks, instead of our usual nonsense here, we bring you instead our year-end awards columns. The categories for these awards are presented as an homage to the television show The McLaughlin Group, because they thought them up in the first place.
At this point, it seems 2011 was the "year of the primary debate," since the precedent set by Republicans this year for seemingly having a debate every week for six months will likely be followed for every election cycle to come. But that's just because it is fresh in everyone's mind -- a lot of other things happened this year which bear mentioning, so let's get right to the awards.
As always, if you disagree with any (or all) of my picks, feel free to make your own in the comments. The categories are completely open to interpretation, and don't forget that there will be a "Part 2" column next week, so I can likely squeeze things I forgot in there.
For reference, before I begin, here are the previous iterations of this column, should you want to go even further back upon Memory Lane:
Biggest Winner of 2011
As always, we're tempted to just hand the award to Wall Street and be done with it. Seems like they emerge winners no matter what else is happening (sigh).
We could also give it as a generic, for the idea of "running for president as self-promotion" -- an idea whose time has obviously come. The list of characters who used a run for the president as a clever method to sell books or television shows is quite impressive this year, in fact, and includes Donald Trump and Sarah Palin (even though neither one actually ran), as well as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich who both shoehorned a run for the Oval Office into their pre-scheduled book tours.
Or we could define the award category as "the biggest absolute value of a win" and hand the award to Representative Kathy Hochul, who captured a seat in the House of Representatives (NY-26) that had been held by Republicans since the Civil War.
But instead we're going to interpret it more literally, and not politically. Militarily, in fact. The Biggest Winner of 2011 was a combination of the Libyan rebels and N.A.T.O. airpower. You won't hear the line "airpower alone never wins wars" much in Washington anymore, one assumes, after the spectacularly quick victory by an untrained group of rebels in combination with high-tech precision bombing by the allies. No matter what happens to the actual government of Libyan in the future, the victory of the rebels, taken alone, has to be seen as the biggest winner of the year. From our point of view, this was about as good as war gets -- no American boots on the ground, no American fatalities, and the entire cost was nothing more than a rounding error in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Win-win, all around. Except for Ghaddafi, of course.
Biggest Loser of 2011
Speaking of Ghaddafi...
A case could easily be made for both the dictator of Libya and for Osama Bin Laden as Biggest Loser of 2011, as they both lost their lives this year. Good riddance to both, but we simply can't hand them any sort of award, sorry.
We could get specific, and go with Rod Blagojevich, ex-governor of Illinois, for his 14-year prison sentence for corruption. That's a pretty big loser, right?
Or we could go generic, and hand the award to "The Middle Class" -- which keeps on losing as Wall Street keeps on winning.
But instead, we're going to say the Biggest Loser of 2011 was the nation of Japan. They experienced an earthquake larger than anything even a Californian can imagine, and a resulting tsunami which (on live television) wiped out a goodly part of their northeastern coastline. The aftermath to these two disasters also brought a third, man-made, disaster as well. The world watched in horror as a nuclear power plant went haywire, complete with multiple explosions (also on live television). For enduring this triple punch, Japan has to be seen as having lost the most during the year.
When I put together a list of nominees for this category, every name on it was Republican. Chris Christie certainly made a large splash this year on the Republican scene. Newt Gingrich's fall -- and subsequent rise -- was notable. Paul Ryan almost got the nod, for his budget plan (which would have been disastrous if passed, but which also was the high point of the Tea Party sweep in the 2010 elections). Ryan put into actual legislation what Republicans had previously just used as convenient talking points -- no small feat, that.
But instead, we're going to -- quite reluctantly, we assure you -- give Best Politician to none other than Speaker of the House John Boehner. Love him or hate him, you've got to admit that Boehner called the tune for everyone in Washington (from President Obama on down) on every single contentious issue. Because he controls the House, and because the Tea Partiers in his own party largely control the votes, he was able to (in effect) veto anything the rest of the government considered doing. Measured on the scale of raw political power, this made him the Best Politician in town this year.
A few names sprung to mind for this one, as well. Donald Trump, although he's not really a politician, nor does he even play one on teevee. Scott Walker, for his massive overreach up in Wisconsin, was also a strong contender. A generic award for the "supercommittee" was given due consideration.
But the Worst Politician last year was, without question, none other than Rick Perry. Perry entered the presidential nomination race riding high. So did a few other Republicans, but while Herman Cain fell from grace due to his past catching up with him (there is no award category for "Most Hubris," sorry), Perry plummeted in the polls due to his own singlehanded incompetence as a politician. He was terrible in debates. He was worse in one-on-one interviews. He gave one speech zonked out of his skull. The only thing he was good at, in fact, was raising money from his Texas oil buddies. Bet they're all wishing they had wagered on a different candidate about now, eh?
Rick Perry was billed as the savior of the Republican field when he entered the scene. He turned out to be George W. Bush Lite, if such a thing can even be imagined. Perry's downfall was spectacular and cringe-worthy to behold. No other politician even came close to the Perry trainwreck, in fact.
Most Defining Political Moment
We have three winners in this category, one domestic and two foreign. The world is too big a place for just one defining moment, to put it another way.
The first foreign one was the debt crisis in Greece. The dominoes in Europe are still falling in direct response to Greece's collapse, and so far have spread to other European countries. The fallout may spread to America, eventually. Whether it does or not, this was the Most Defining Political Moment for Europe.
Domestically, the Most Defining Political Moment was when John Boehner walked away from negotiations with Barack Obama over the debt ceiling crisis, because he could not convince his own caucus to accept the "grand bargain" he had forged with the president. This inability to get anything done served as the Most Defining Political Moment for America, which was repeated in a number of less dramatic moments of negotiation breakdown all year long.
From a more world-wide viewpoint, the Most Defining Political Moment was when fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest in Tunisia. His self-immolation was the spark that set the Arab world aflame, and the reverberations continue to spread. Bouazizi died without knowing that his defiant act had more consequences than he ever could have dreamed possible. Dictators across the region were overthrown -- some peacefully, some not so peacefully. The youth of the region rose up in what is now known as the "Arab Spring," and showed their strength to the world. A few dictators saw what was in the wind, and moved to modernize their own governments to give their own people a voice. Not all dictators chose either of these routes, however, and brutal crackdowns happened in some countries which are not America's friends... and one notable one who is our ally.
But this "people power" spread even beyond the Arab world, and has popped up in Europe, in Russia, and here at home on Wall Street. And it all started because one guy in Tunisia had had enough. Mohammed Bouazizi is hereby posthumously awarded Most Defining Political Moment for what his action has unleashed.
Turncoat of the Year
This one was tough. There simply weren't any prominent Democrats who stabbed their party in the back in spectacular ways this year. Some might argue Barack Obama, for such things as his recent support of Kathleen Sebelius' decision on over-the-counter sales of Plan B, but we felt that nothing Obama did this year really rose to the level of Turncoat of the Year.
Instead, we go across the aisle to a blast from the past, Dick Cheney. This year saw the release of Cheney's book Darth Cheney: The Death Star Years (no, we're kidding, his memoirs were actually merely called In My Time). Cheney pulled no punches, we are told (you'd have to pay us a whale of a lot of money to read such a thing ourselves), and he eviscerated anyone in the Bush White House for whom Cheney still holds a grudge against. It's hard to feel sorry for the likes of anyone in Dubya's administration, but from the outcry which accompanied this book's release, we have to admit that Dick Cheney earned his Turncoat of the Year award. At least until someone who has actually read the book tells us differently.
Brian Williams springs to mind for this category, as he always does. Sigh.
Mitt Romney certainly was in the running for his campaign style, best summed up as: "Gosh darn it, I'd make a dandy president, wouldn't I?" The man just oozes whatever the opposite of charisma is.
But we're going to give a joint award to the same three congressional leaders we handed the award to last year: Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner. Listening to any one of these three men is more excruciating that watching your houseplants grow. Observing paint drying would be a barrel of fun next to these snoozers. Seriously, if Harry Reid mumbled any more he'd put C-SPAN to sleep. McConnell and Boehner are no fun to listen to, either. Anyone who argues that politics is run by shallow people whose only accomplishment is looking good on television needs to explain why these three men are in the positions of power they hold.
The flip side is much more fun to consider, of course. A case could be made for Ron Paul (believe it or not) or even Michelle Bachmann, because you just never know what's going to come out of their mouths at any given time, lending a certain edge-of-the-seat nature to watching them. Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich would also be in the running, if this were the criterion for this award.
But this isn't really charisma, per se. It's something, to be sure, but it's not exactly charisma. For the same reason, while we'd really like to give the award to Elizabeth Warren, for her evisceration of hecklers on the campaign trail, and her ability to frame very complicated financial issues in language that every voter can understand, again, this is not exactly the true definition of charisma.
The real Most Charismatic personality of 2011 was Herman Cain. Say what you will about him, he was the sole person in the Republican contest who looked like he was having a good time. He was (right up until all the sexual scandal accusations) cheerful, sunny, and exciting. He livened up the debates like nobody's business. Cain's "9-9-9" plan had the quality of a mantra -- and one designed to be easy for crowds to chant. Who else can make such a claim, from either party? Herman Cain's charisma was so large, in fact, that it will be sorely missed for the remainder of the campaign season.
We had a lot of bum raps last year, so let's just go down the list of nominees.
Elizabeth Warren got a bum rap from Republicans, who hated the fact that she managed to get the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau enacted. She may have the last laugh, though, if she wins election to the Senate.
"Occupy Wall Street doesn't know what they're protesting about." Sheesh. OK, they may have had their problems, but this really wasn't one of them.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have gotten a very bum rap indeed, but we are not cognizant of all the facts of the case, so it is impossible to judge from this distance the fairness (or bum-ness) of this rap.
"Obama doesn't know what he's doing in Libya." Oh, I don't know, seems like it turned out a lot better than people predicted, eh?
But while all of these were in contention, we have two Bummest Rap awards to hand out. The first is that public unions are somehow the cause for all governmental financial problems. The Republicans pushed this idea harder than they have since about the Great Depression, and they made large legislative gains in crushing what is left of American labor. But it's still a bum rap, no matter how successful they were.
The biggest, Bummest Rap of them all was, however, "Barack Obama wasn't born in America." The "birther" movement -- led by that mental giant Donald Trump -- crashed into the brick wall of Obama's "long form birth certificate" which the White House made public early this year. There are still conspiracy theorists who are keeping the birther flame alive out there, but they have been relegated to the fringe, where they belong.
Wall Street. Need I say more?
Anthony Weiner's weenie.
Seriously, though, we have to give the Fairest Rap to none other than Rod Blagojevich. Have a nice 14 years in prison, Blaggy. That's what you get for trying to sell Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
Two awards are necessary here. The first is sentimental, and quite literal, and it goes to Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was brutally shot in the brain by a deranged individual. Giffords was not even expected to live, and she has fought her way back along a very long and hard recovery path to regaining her seat in Congress. While her future is in doubt, in the space of one year, we simply can't think of anyone else who struggled so hard to make such a spectacular comeback.
Less literally, however, and more politically, there is really only one possible name for Best Comeback: Newt Gingrich. Newtie's campaign was left for dead by just about everybody (us included), almost immediately after he entered the race, "at the Tiffany's counter" (so to speak). His senior campaign staff all bailed on him very early, stating that Newt just wasn't serious about actually campaigning and was more interested in selling books. But even with all these hits, Newt stayed a fairly steady second in the polling, just biding his time until the debates. As one shooting star in the Republican firmament fell after another, Newt became the "last man standing" in the race to be the "anti-Romney" candidate. Newt is now the frontrunner. This is as spectacular a comeback as John McCain managed four years ago, and so earns Newtie the Best Comeback of the year.
Most Original Thinker
On the Democratic side, a case could be made for Jeff Merkley, who came up with the idea that the Congressional Budget Office should be required to "score" important legislation not only on the impact it would have on the federal budget, but also on the impact it would have on jobs. This was a brilliant idea, and Merkley deserves at least a mention for it here.
On the Republican side, one might think that Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan would qualify -- since it (A.) was an actual plan, and (B.) was original (which was more than just about any other Republican candidate could claim). Unfortunately, Cain was disqualified because he apparently got the idea from the "Sim City" computer game, making it not exactly original.
Some would argue for Ron Paul, but while his ideas are original within the Republican Party, they are the same ideas he's been pushing for decades, meaning they're not exactly fresh either.
Paul Ryan is the Republican who came closest to this award, because whether you loved it or hated (and feared) it, his budget proposal was indeed an original piece of work. And you can take that "piece of work" however you'd like....
But the real Most Original Thinker of the year was whomever came up with the positively brilliant slogan: "We Are The 99 Percent!" As political slogans go, this one is pretty near perfect. Short, snappy, to the point, and immediately obvious to anyone who hears it. While the slogan "Occupy Wall Street" will likely eventually fade, our guess is we'll be talking about the "99 Percent" for years to come. Whatever bright spark got this idea and wrote it down on a placard deserves the Most Original Thinker of the year, hands down.
Most Stagnant Thinker
The Republican Party? [pause for drumroll and laughter...]
We're going worldwide with this one, actually, all kidding aside.
The Most Stagnant Thinker is a group award this year, given to all the dictators who have violently resisted change across the globe. Thinking that you can just cow your people into submission by a heavy show of force used to be fairly standard operating procedure. No longer. What with the interconnectedness of the world today, what with everyone having a cell phone which takes video, and what with seeing the fate of the leaders of Egypt and Libya, dictators everywhere should really be having second thoughts. Shooting your people in the street should no longer be seen as a solution to popular demands for reform. Some leaders have gotten this message and gotten out in front of it. Some, sadly, have not. For those dictators who still deny the new reality, a collective Most Stagnant Thinker award is due.
Best Photo Op
Two monumental events this year could easily have won Best Photo Op, but neither one had pictures, which tends to be disqualifying.
Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself aflame would doubtlessly be the banner under which hundreds of thousands would have marched this year -- if such a photo had been available.
Likewise, the dead corpse of Osama Bin Laden would have also been a world-changing photo, if the Obama administration had gone public with it. Perhaps some time in the future, decades hence, it will be made public, but for now it remains the Best Photo Op that wasn't.
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 was pretty somber, and the new memorial park was indeed photogenic in a sobering way.
But the real Best Photo Op was won by a nation that really knows how to do this sort of thing right. Because the royal wedding in Great Britain was indeed the Best Photo Op of the entire year, bar none. Leave it to the Brits to do the pomp-and-circumstance thing in high style.
Worst Photo Op
We've got a four-way tie in this category. It all depends on your interpretation of "worst," we suppose.
The video of Ghaddafi's capture, cowering in a drainpipe, was certainly "worst" in one way.
The incredible video of the Japanese tsunami and the explosions and continuing crisis at the nuclear power plant were also riveting photo ops, if you define "worst" another way.
Michelle Bachmann's "deer in the headlights" cover photo for Time magazine was pretty bad, in its own special way.
But, more recently, the images of Iran displaying a captured American drone spy aircraft was the worst possible photo op, in a very realpolitik sense.
As always, this is the most fun category to just unbelt and let the chips fall where they may. Ready? Here we go....
Rod Blagojevich? Enough already!
Kardashians? Enough already!
The "birthers"? Enough already!
GOP obstructionism? Enough already!
Donald Trump? Enough already!
The Iraq War? Enough already!
And one giant one to end on, from the Queen of Tease herself:
Sarah Palin? Enough already!
We've got a few strong candidates for this one, sad to say.
First up is Anthony Weiner, who spent several days lying about the fact that he had sent photos of his...um... namesake (which, honestly, could have been a nominee for Worst Photo Op as well...) to females who were not, in fact, his wife.
We can retire forever the "Barack Obama wasn't born in America" lie this year, one hopes.
Taking a worldwide view, there are Pakistan's lies about not knowing where Osama Bin Laden was living. The equivalent here would have been if he had been holed up down the street from West Point or the Naval Academy. It's simply not credible that no one in Pakistan's government or military knew where the guy was.
Of course, America engages in these sorts of lies as well, for both domestic consumption and the foreign audience, so it's not like we're all that better in this category. Domestically, there was Barack Obama insisting that Libya was nothing more than a "kinetic military action" (and not, you know, a "war") -- a term so Orwellian I'm surprised it didn't come out of the mouth of Dick Cheney himself (it does have a certain Cheneyesque ring to it, n'est pas?)
But we're going to say that the Worst Lie of the year was the oh-so-diplomatic denials that the United States of America is operating military drones (what used to be "spy planes") anywhere in the world. The Pentagon has never confirmed any of our numerous drone programs, except on actual battlefields we have publicly copped to already (Libya, for instance). Drones in Pakistan? Nope, not the U.S.A., sorry, I have no information about that. Drones over Iran? No comment.
This lie (which nobody in their right mind actually believed) was exposed as falsehood recently when Iran exhibited what the Pentagon had to sheepishly admit was indeed one of our drones. So can we please just stop repeating this lie that nobody believes in the first place?
Capitalist of the Year
This one is going to shock a few people.
The Capitalist of the Year for 2011 was none other than... [drumroll]... Occupy Wall Street.
Gasp! Not the fighters of capitalism itself!
Yes, indeedy. Occupy Wall Street has taken in an eye-popping $660,000-plus in donations so far. And they've spent less than $200,000 of it. Which leaves them with a half a million dollars in the bank! That is pretty downright impressive, right there. The group, which has been evicted from the park and is trying to stay cohesive throughout the winter (assumably, until the weather's nice enough to protest effectively again) is actually sitting on a pretty impressive stack of resources, measured in dollars and cents.
What they've accomplished, and for what they have collected from like-minded folks, and (most importantly) for husbanding their money carefully and not blowing through it as fast as it came in, we hereby award them Capitalist of the Year. Whether the thought of such an award makes them cringe, or not.
Almost done, for this week at least.
Because I didn't know where else to put it, an Honorable Mention is deserved for the new memorial to Doctor Martin Luther King Junior in our Nation's Capital.
This year was the 100th anniversary of Workers' Compensation, even if the Post Office turned down a stamp to commemorate the occasion.
The people of Wisconsin deserve special mention, for being at the forefront of the protest movement from the Left -- in some very cold weather last year, when they turned out in droves and shut down the state government in protest over their Republican governor's overreach. The year began with this event, and it closes with a half a million signatures (so far) on petitions to recall Scott Walker.
My best Honorable Mention of the year, though, goes to Daniel Hernandez, who had just begun (he'd only been on the job for five days) working as an intern for Gabrielle Giffords when the shooting occurred. Read what I had to say about it back then (for details), but what summed up his act of courage more than anything else was the phrase: "When a gunman attacked... Hernandez ran towards the shots...." To me, that's the definition of heroism.
Person of the Year
Knowing little about macroeconomics, there's a good chance that our Person of the Year may cause some dissent.
But, sitting from the sidelines, it seems to me that the person who was largest on the world's stage this year was the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. With the strongest economy in Europe, Germany's got the most to lose if the common Euro currency falls apart. Knowing this, Merkel has led the effort to save the Euro from extinction, by propping up the weakest economies in their union. This has had the widest impact on the world at large, because while they've walked up to the brink, so far (at least) Europe hasn't economically collapsed, dragging the entire globe into a depression.
France has stood with Germany, but again, from watching events unfold from afar, Merkel's the one who seems to be not only holding back the tide, but also the one pushing for fundamentally rethinking how the European Union should be constructed. This is key, because the constitution they saddled themselves with is proving to be just as unworkable as our own early attempt at union, the Articles of Confederation. The problem is similar -- too weak a central government. Merkel has called for significant changes in the foundation of the E.U., and if she is successful may lead the way to a more stable Europe in the future.
For her efforts this year to avoid a worldwide economic catastrophe, Angela Merkel is our Person of the Year.
[See you next week, for Part 2!]
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