The first annual Capitol Hill roast

Who is a turkey and who is not in Washington this year? Salon ranks the politicos who have earned our gratitude and those who should get their just deserts.

Published November 22, 2006 1:06PM (EST)

Ever since the Iraqis stopped saying, "Thank you, brave Americans," gratitude has been in short supply for our nation's leaders.

But Thanksgiving week is always the time to [insert your favorite cliché]:

1) give thanks;
2) pretend to give thanks while cherishing your grudges;
3) take stock;
4) invest in stock;
5) count your blessings;
6) recount your blessings because one is missing -- and check the silver too.

This Thanksgiving comes at an odd moment in American political life since so much is built around anticipation. [Insert Carly Simon soundtrack.] From the expectations surrounding Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi and the incoming Democratic Congress to the hopes riding on the presidential campaign about to burst from the starting blocks, we are living in the future tense. The problem, of course, is that George W. Bush and his Iraq war still dominate the present -- even if the American electorate has dramatically transformed itself into the Coalition of the Unwilling.

What is wondrous about Thanksgiving is that it is the only national holiday that has stoutly -- very stoutly after dinner is consumed -- resisted commercialization (buying a Butterball turkey is not the linchpin of capitalism), religious excess (the Puritans were not your typical evangelical voters) and jingoistic displays of patriotism (this is a day blessedly free of another Kate Smith rendition of "God Bless America"). In short, Thanksgiving appeals to our better angels, secular though they may be.

It is in that grateful and restrained Thanksgiving spirit that we reflect on the bounty that fate has bequeathed to our political leaders during the past year. For some (begin with almost everyone who worked on a Democratic House or Senate campaign), 2006 has been a cornucopia. For others (defrocked Republican House leaders Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert come to mind), the pickings have been meager.

Most political figures, though, boast career arcs somewhere between exuberance and indictment. They also tend to lack a keen sense of self-awareness -- think of the ungainly figures (Newt Gingrich, for example) who seriously imagine themselves in the White House in 2009. So as a public service to these perplexed politicos, here is the first annual Salon Guide to Thanksgiving Gratitude. And to simplify the cornucopic calculations, winners are awarded up to four horns of plenty to symbolize what kind of year they have had.

Some are born into mediocrity, and others have it thrust upon them. Then there is that rare soul who can only aspire to reach that high. So it is with Bush and his remaining White House tenure. A Democratic Congress has given the president something new to blame (the 9/11-ate-my-homework excuse was getting lame) for his own deficiencies. But the elections have also granted Bush a last chance to display growth in office (a conceit beloved of both presidential historians and the journalists who aspire to be them). Repudiated by the voters and never again on the ballot, Bush no longer has to cling to the risible fiction that Iraq is a success story, which everyone would recognize if only the liberal media told the truth. A Mesopotamian exit strategy could still vault Bush into the pantheon of mediocre presidents (say, Millard Fillmore) rather than disastrous ones.

Think it can't get worse for the creepy V.P.? Imagine what would happen to Cheney if former top advisor Scooter Libby, whose trial is slated to begin in mid-January, ends up cooperating with the prosecutors.

One more election like this and he will have gone from Boy Genius to the political version of "Hollywood Squares."

On balance, this has been a good year for the secretary of state -- if you don't count North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Rice probably spent as much time worrying about Don Rumsfeld going thermonuclear at the Pentagon as she did brooding about Pyongyang's supply of A-bombs. Now with Rummy rousted, Rice has a free hand to continue her makeover from Warrior Queen to Condi the Conciliator -- the second coming of Colin Powell as the administration's apostle of a moderate, multilateral foreign policy.

The White House chief of staff can now laugh out loud when Rove offers political advice -- especially the now-discredited notion that any hint of moderation will alienate the president's conservative base.

A bum bet in backing the wrong horse (John Murtha) for House majority leader should not diminish what she accomplished in 2006, especially since her predecessor, Dick Gephardt, failed four times to become speaker. Pelosi should be grateful that she needs to hold the political stage only until mid-2007 when she, like any other congressional leader, will inevitably be overshadowed by the presidential campaign. The timing is perfect, since six months is probably about as long as she can paper over the fissures between the liberal wing of the party and the nervous-about-reelection moderates.

With little fanfare, the incoming Senate majority leader (with a major assist from Chuck Schumer, who masterminded the Senate campaign committee) was a big Democratic winner on Election Day. Even though he is blessed with a frail one-vote majority, Reid will dominate the news from Capitol Hill, based on the simple fact that the Senate is invariably where the action is. If any legislative deals are possible with the Bush White House, they will be made by Reid and any compromise-minded Republicans (most likely Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and, of course, John McCain) that he can attract.

Never in recent memory has a politician won so much by losing. Had antiwar crusader Ned Lamont not opposed and beaten him in the Connecticut Senate primary, Lieberman would merely be an occasionally exasperating hawkish Democrat. But reelected as a so-called Independent Democrat, Lieberman ends up single-handedly holding the balance of power in a Senate with 50 Democrats (counting Vermont's left-wing Independent Bernie Sanders) and 50 Republicans (counting Cheney, who can cast tie-breaking votes). For the anti-Lieberman netroots, it is hard to imagine a more powerful illustration of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for dictum about answered prayers.

Her Thanksgiving table is a groaning board of career choices. Senate Democrats are in the majority (and 2008 looks promising based on the seats that are up), giving her a chance to ponder the safe option of eventually succeeding Reid as majority leader. While Hillary still remains the favorite for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, nothing this year has made her road back to the White House seem any less arduous. In fact, the excitement that now surrounds Barack Obama serves as a potent reminder that cautious-to-a-fault Hillary never will be the charismatic Clinton.

The book tour, the Time magazine cover and the public acclaim have all proved one thing: Obama's keynote address that electrified the 2004 Democratic Convention was not an aberration. Yet, even as he veers toward risking a presidential race after just two years in the Senate, Obama must worry about living up to a set of expectations greater than any other Democrat's.

He is doing everything right -- burnishing his scant foreign-policy credentials, courting labor, emphasizing Iowa, and hitting double-digits in the national polls. But the 2004 vice presidential nominee is in prime position (to Hillary's left) to be trampled by the crowds racing toward Obama.

His brand of centrism received a boost when the Democrats picked up three House seats in his home state of Indiana. But his biggest bit of bounty came when Mark Warner (like Bayh, a former red-state governor) decided not to join the presidential jousts. Still, he remains a Bayh-the-way candidate for '08.

Probably no one in the Republican Party was secretly happier over the self-destruction of defeated Sen. George Allen, R-Va., than Romney. Suddenly, the outgoing governor of Massachusetts is in the enviable position of being the most potent GOP challenger to John McCain.

Even as McCain's Republican maverick costume was growing threadbare, the outfit was refurbished because of the Democratic takeover of the Senate. There is a danger in running for president from the Senate (just ask Bob Dole), but McCain has a knack of simultaneously being at the center of Capitol Hill action as a go-between and in the early primary states as the front-runner.

A year from now, at Thanksgiving 2007, the presidential race will be accelerating into full throttle as the Iowa caucuses near. And if history is any guide, we will be buzzing about an unexpected candidate (like Howard Dean four years ago) who has seized the moment or organized a movement in a way that we cannot begin to imagine today.

And a year from now, the novelty of a Democratic Congress will probably have given way to the old paradigm of gridlock, as legislative ambitions are scaled down in anticipation of the presidential election. In the White House, Bush will almost certainly be less formidable and perhaps (it's the holidays, let's be optimistic) more conciliatory. And Iraq, barring a miracle, will continue to bleed and fester.

But, then as now, we will almost certainly remember November 2006, when the tide turned and the voters rejected both the war and one-party government. And that alone should be a justification for giving thanks.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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