12 for '12: The year in politics

12 people who defined the last 12 months of American politics

Published December 25, 2012 3:00PM (EST)

        (AP/Eric Gay)
(AP/Eric Gay)

To close out 2012, I’ve looked back at each month and selected one individual who loomed large in the news and whose story tells us something significant about the year in politics. This is an admittedly imprecise exercise. Not all months are created equally. There are some months when multiple people could have been chosen; in other months, the pickings were slim. And in some cases, the names I’ve chosen offer a reminder that in political journalism, what seems vitally important one day can seem trivial the next.  Anyway, on to the list:

January: Newt Gingrich

To anyone who’d just been teleported from the year 1999, the scene in Charleston, South Carolina on the night of January 21 had to be impossible to fathom: There was Newt Gingrich, the man who’d been marched off the political stage by his own party after a disastrous four-year run as House Speaker, declaring victory in a Republican presidential primary. And not just any primary: South Carolina, a historically pivotal early contest. And not just a victory – an absolute landslide.

Hell, you didn’t need to be a time traveler to be mystified. Gingrich had been out of elected politics for more than a decade when he launched his presidential campaign. Although “launched his presidential campaign” is a generous way of putting it; it was never clear if Gingrich was ever seriously interested in competing for the presidency – or if he just recognized the extraordinary marketing opportunities that came with being regarded by the media as a presidential candidate. From the middle of 2011 on, Gingrich had almost no staff, no money, and spent little time engaged in anything resembling traditional campaigning.

Then there was the matter of his baggage. The personal issues – three marriages, serial adultery – were well-documented, and erupted into a scandal days before the South Carolina vote, with his first wife announcing that he’d once asked for an open marriage. There was also his history of ethical lapses. And the simple fact that Republican Party leaders and influential conservatives really had no use for him.  And yet somehow, he managed to crush Mitt Romney by 15 points in South Carolina, to dominate the news, and to make the political world wonder if he might actually walk off with the nomination.

It was all an illusion, of course. Ten days after South Carolina, Gingrich was swamped in Florida, and that was that. His rise-and-fall, though, offered of how parties actually decide nominations, and how misleading polls (and even primary results) can be. The GOP’s opinion-shaping class – elected officials, fund-raisers, activists and interest group leaders, media personalities – was largely united in not liking Gingrich, but was also willing to tolerate his presence on the stage, so long as he wasn’t actually a threat to win. But when he became one, they swung into action, using their platforms to send a clear signal to rank-and-file voters: Stay away from this guy. As tends to happen when there’s consensus within a party’s opinion-shaping class, the rank-and-file listened and went along.

* * *

February: Rick Santorum

Gingrich’s Florida flameout was supposed to signify Romney’s emergence as the presumptive GOP nominee. But almost immediately, the former Massachusetts governor turned around and lost three contests in one day – to Rick Santorum. This ushered in a weeks-long stretch in which Republicans asked themselves, Are we really, really sure we want to nominate Romney? And in which talk of a deadlocked convention gripped some of the political world.

Santorum’s wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on February 7 were partly a testament to his strength with culturally conservative Republicans. But they were more a reflection of the stubborn resistance of a huge chunk of the Republican base – white evangelical Christians – to Romney’s candidacy, and of the severe hesitance of conservative leaders to speak up on Romney’s behalf. This left the door wide open for Santorum, who ultimately won 11 caucuses and primaries – a somewhat incredible feat, given that he came to the race after losing his own Pennsylvania Senate seat by nearly 20 points.

It’s still unclear why evangelicals were so cold toward Romney. Maybe his Mormonism played a role. Or maybe his record of social liberalism in Massachusetts – avowed support for abortion and gay rights – fed suspicions that his ideological conversion wasn’t genuine and that he might revert to his old ways as president. As for the reluctance of conservatives to vouch for Romney, that was easy to explain: Rarely has the conservative base placed as much of a premium on “purity” as it has in the Obama-era. Given all the doubts about Romney, the act of going to bat for him in a GOP primary season came with the very real risk of being labeled a RINO.

Santorum’s surprising strength extended the GOP primary season and reminded Romney of how deeply ambivalent his own party was about him – something that perhaps kept him from moving more aggressively toward the center when he did lock up the nomination.

* * *

March: Sandra Fluke

Technically, it was in late February that Sandra Fluke’s name first entered the political conversation. The 30-year-old Georgetown law student had spoken out in favor of a federal contraceptive mandate, which prompted Rush Limbaugh to call her “a slut.”

“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her?” Limbaugh asked on his February 29 show. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception.”

The ensuing controversy sucked up a ton of media oxygen in March and powerfully reinforced Democratic efforts to convince women – particularly young women and culturally liberal professional women – that the GOP was hostile to their interests. That Mitt Romney would only say that Limbaugh’s remarks were “not the language I would have used” only advanced the Democrats’ message.

The Fluke saga was only one example of what Democrats came to call the GOP’s “war on women.” It came on the heels of efforts by Virginia Republicans to mandate a transvaginal ultrasound for women seeking abortions and foreshadowed the offensive comments about rape that Todd Akin would make months later. A pronounced gender gap ended up playing a key role in Obama’s victory. Among men, he lost to Romney by seven points. But with women, he won by 11.

* * *

April: Mitt Romney

By the time Rick Santorum suspended his campaign on April 10, it was already clear that Romney would be Barack Obama’s fall opponent. But the way Romney won the nomination – not with a string of dramatic and decisive victories, but instead by cobbling together a large enough delegate lead that the political world finally said, OK, it looks like it will be Romney – spoke to the lack of passion that his candidacy stirred among Republicans. And this, in turn, spoke to how conservatives viewed the 2012 election.

They already controlled the House, where true believers like Paul Ryan had already drawn up legislation that would realize the Tea Party’s vision of society, and they assumed they’d win back the Senate in the fall. And rampant economic anxiety, they figured, would leave swing voters itching to toss out Obama. So a generic Republican like Romney would be fine – so long as he didn’t suddenly get any ideas about moving to the middle and cutting deals with Democrats as president.

Romney was clearly aware of this concern, which was reinforced by all of those Santorum and Gingrich primary victories. It left him staking out positions far out of the political mainstream in an effort to convince Tea Party conservatives that he was one of them. This problem didn’t go away once Romney secured the nomination. The ideological gap between Obama-era conservative orthodoxy and most general election swing voters was massive, but Romney had little room to maneuver. Any shift to the middle would arouse cries of treason and depress the GOP base. It left him with little to say; his campaign consisted almost entirely of broad-stroke attacks on the “Obama economy” and the president’s failed leadership. He recognized how poisonous many of the right’s policy views were, but he was in no position to repudiate them. The best he could do was try to ignore them, and hope everyone else would too.

Those who say that Romney was an unusually flawed or weak candidate aren’t entirely off-base. But the real problem Romney had in 2012 was the serious, politically damaging limits that his own party imposed on him.

* * *

May: Joe Biden

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the 2012 campaign unfolding without Democrats fully embracing marriage equality. There’s a profound generation gap on the issue, and backing it offered an opportunity for President Obama and his to activate the “coalition of the ascendant” that they are increasingly relying on.

But when Joe Biden appeared on “Meet the Press” in early May, the idea that Obama would publicly back gay marriage in his reelection year seemed far-fetched. The president had talked of slowly evolving on the issue, and the White House’s plan seemed clear: Better to wait until after November to say anything more. The race was going to be close, so why risk any needless backlash?

The vice president had other ideas, though, and when David Gregory asked him about gay marriage, Biden pronounced himself “absolutely comfortable” with it. And just like that, the pressure was on Obama to spell out exactly where his head was on the issue – something he did three days later when he told Robin Roberts that “I think same-sex couple should be able to get married.” In short order, other top Democrats made similar pronouncements, marriage equality was added to the party’s platform, and the right of same-sex couples to wed became a rallying cry at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

We’ll never know for sure if Obama would have weighed in without Biden speaking up, but when it comes to gay marriage, it sure feels like the vice president sped up history.

* * *

June: John Roberts

It’s hard to overstate the sense of impending doom on the left in the run-up to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. Four of the court’s Republican appointees seemed certain to deem the individual mandate unconstitutional, and reports that the White House had botched oral arguments created a strong impression that swing man Anthony Kennedy would side with them. Universal coverage had been a progressive priority for generations, and the ACA – which actually strengthened the private insurance industry – marked a very watered-down realization of that dream. If even such an imperfect compromise couldn’t hold up, then what hope was there?

That the court decided on June 28 to uphold the ACA was surprising enough. Even more startling was the identity of the fifth vote: It wasn’t Kennedy – it was Chief Justice John Roberts, the man placed on the court by George W. Bush to encourage decades of “strict constructionist” decisions. Numerous theories for Roberts’ surprise move have been offered. All that can be said for certain is that he sacrificed (at least for now) his revered status on the right and preserved a dramatic expansion of the social safety net. Roberts’ vote didn’t single-handedly save the ACA; Obama’s reelection in November was essential too. But without it, we wouldn’t be talking today about how best to implement the law.

* * *

July: Elizabeth Warren

The middle of July brought the first reports that Wall Street’s enemy-in-chief would deliver the keynote address at the Democratic convention. Elizabeth Warren had been President Obama’s pick to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but Republican filibuster threats put an end to that – and nudged Warren to instead challenge Scott Brown for his Massachusetts Senate seat.

Being tapped for the keynote slot was an affirmation of Warren surprising success, both in her race against Brown and in her efforts to shape the national political dialogue. When she’d entered the Senate contest, Brown had seemed unbeatable. All of the state’s biggest name Democrats had passed on challenging him, and many (present company very much included) saw him as a prohibitive favorite to win a full term. But everything changed in September 2011, when Warren provided a jarringly clear and forceful summation of progressive economic values. The video became a viral sensation, donations gushed in (more than enough to offset the massive Wall Street money behind Brown), and the national media began following the race. In a way, she set an example for Obama, who seemed to be trying to mimic her when he uttered the “You didn’t build that” line that Republicans jumped all over.

If Brown’s initial Senate victory in 2010 marked a low point for liberals in the Obama-era, his defeat at Warren’s hands this November reflected how significantly the political ground shifted in 2011 and 2012.

* * *

August: Clint Eastwood

No, the 82-year-old movie icon’s baffling and incoherent colloquy with a chair didn’t itself sway any voters, but it did encapsulate the Republican convention nicely: It was a bust.

Granted, convention bounces aren’t what they used to be. With the ideological contours of both parties clearly defined, the number of true swing voters is declining. So even a brilliantly choreographed convention won’t win over the number of converts it might have a generation ago. Still, as Democrats showed in Charlotte this year, modest (and significant in a close race) bounces are still very possible. Romney and the GOP came to Tampa running slightly behind the national polling average, the same spot they’d been in since Romney emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee. It was an opportunity for Romney to introduce himself to a country that still knew little about him, and to give voters a sense of what they’d really be voting for if they sided with him.

But Republicans wasted their time by harping on themes that resonated only within the conservative media ecosystem. Chris Christie’s keynote address was filled with tired platitudes and self-indulgence. Paul Ryan’s speech generated a flood of media attention – for the extravagant liberties he took with well-established facts. And then there was the debacle of the final night. To make room for Eastwood, a moving video about Romney’s personal story was bumped out of the 10pm hour, ensuring that millions of voters would never see it. Eastwood himself blathered on for more than his allotted time, and when he finally finished, Marco Rubio still had to go. By the time Romney took the stage, he was practically an afterthought. There was no convention bounce for the 2012 Republican ticket.

* * *

September: Someone we may never know

Maybe someday we’ll learn the identity of the person who secretly planted a video camera in a private meeting Mitt Romney held with donors in Boca Raton back in May. But for now, all we know is that the resulting tape ended up in the hands of Mother Jones, which on September 17 posted a series of explosive clips that rocked the campaign and tarnished Romney’s image.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney had told his donors. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”

The remarks didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The makers-vs.-takers theme has been a major point of emphasis on the right since Obama was elected – the idea that hardworking, generally Republican-voting Americans are the victims of a lazy dependency class that Obama and the Democrats are continually trying to expand in order to win elections. When the tape went public, Romney at first played dumb, then expressed regret. Some suggested he might not have really meant it – that he’d just been telling his donors what they wanted to hear, never thinking a camera might be in the room.

But almost as soon as the election ended, Romney expressed almost exactly the same thoughts in another unguarded moment, telling donors on a conference call that Obama had won by giving free “gifts” to African-Americans, Latinos, young people are other target demographic groups.  And so now we know that the Mitt Romney of the 47 percent tape was and is the real Mitt Romney.

* * *

October: Chris Matthews

The MSNBC host provided comedian’s with ample material when he lit into President Obama for his listless performance in the October 3 debate. But Matthews was right.

The president had come to Denver with a healthy, though hardly overwhelming, lead over Romney, who had spent months preparing for the debate, knowing it was his best – and last – chance to shake up the race. Theatrically, Romney was brilliant that night, with glib, punchy and superficially compelling rhetoric that Obama left unchallenged. Romney had staked out numerous positions and made numerous commitments that placed him on the far, far right of the ideological spectrum. But Obama barely bothered to point this out, and in the few instances when he thought to, his delivery was flat and hard to follow.

It was popular this fall to argue that debates don’t matter – that in the grand scheme of a campaign, they barely move the needle. But in a close race, a shift of a couple of points can matter immensely – and Romney did, in fact, receive a real and durable bump from Denver, one that left him leading in the national polling average for the first time all year. The debate in Denver mattered, and his supporters were right to regard Obama’s miserable performance as infuriatingly reckless.

He did rebound with a command performance two weeks later and a strong showing in the third debate as well. Other factors also helped stabilize the race and return Obama to the lead. But October was a scary month for Democrats, and it didn’t have to be quite so nerve-wracking.

(Obligatory disclosure: I am part of a show on MSNBC, where Matthews works)

* * *

November: Chris Christie

Glaringly absent from President Obama’s first term was virtually any meaningful praise from major figures in the opposition party.

This was no coincidence. As Jamelle Bouie has explained, Republicans recognized from the start that the general public doesn’t follow policy debates closely and tends to respond more to the process-related noise that comes out of Washington and is transmitted through the media. To tear Obama down, then, Republicans decided to oppose his entire agenda, swear off compromise, refrain from giving him credit – and then bemoan Obama’s failure to live up to his 2008 promise to change Washington and bring the two parties together. And it worked pretty well. Obama’s honeymoon was brief, his approval rating fell below 50 percent early in his term, and he was in real danger of losing his job. (There was also the 2010 GOP midterm landslide.)

This made what happened in the days immediately preceding the November election particularly notable, when one of the country’s most prominent Republicans went out of his way to celebrate Obama’s “outstanding” leadership. What exactly motivated Chris Christie to lavish unqualified praise on Obama in the wake of Super Storm Sandy isn’t entirely clear. It might simply been a very human reaction to a shocking natural disaster that had devastated a state Christie loves. But there could have been some calculation too; Christie is a politician, a shrewd and ambitious one.

The bottom-line, though, is that Sandy put Christie in the national spotlight on the eve of the election, and he used that role to offer the loudest bipartisan validation of Obama’s presidency of his entire first term.

* * *

December: Barack Obama

In a way, the Obama presidency was on hold from August 2011 through this year’s election. When his effort to strike a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner blew up two summers ago, Obama (belatedly) recognized that meaningful compromise with the GOP just wasn’t possible. The right was drunk off its 2010 landslide, convinced Obama would be a one-termer, and adamant about fulfilling the Tea Party’s “pure” vision of a radically scaled back federal government. Why compromise at all now, conservatives seemed to say, when we can just wait until 2012, win complete control of Washington, and then impose our will.

Thus in the wake of the debt ceiling drama of ’11 did Obama commit himself to spelling out clearly his basic philosophical differences with modern conservative orthodoxy. Winning reelection in ’12, he argued, would “break the fever” of GOP rejectionism and force Republicans to meet him halfway on taxes and spending.

That hasn’t quite happened yet, but December has played out a little differently than the last Obama/GOP showdown. Emboldened by his victory, Obama had claimed a mandate to raise tax rates on high-income Americans – a concept at odds with 22 years of unanimous Republican opposition to any and all income tax hikes. Before this year’s election, it was unthinkable that Republicans might fold, but as December has progressed, a fair number of prominent voices on the right have actually advised their party to give ground.

It hasn’t been enough to strike a fiscal cliff deal, at least as of this writing. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since all of the Bush tax cuts will simply vanish if January 1 comes and goes without a deal. Then, Obama will be in position to propose a tax cut for most Americans (but this time leaving out the richest), and Republicans will face serious pressure to go along with it. It’s still possible that Obama will cut a pre-January 1 deal that his own party won’t like, and if we do go over the cliff, other Democratic priorities – like more stimulus money, an extension of the payroll tax cut – might go unaddressed. Still, Obama enjoys real leverage in the talks – and for December, he’s acted like it. This is what winning an election can do.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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