The storm of the New Year will soon break, perhaps as fiercely as the blizzard that buried the Northeast and brought the once competent Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York his Katrina moment. But for now, it's time to look back; award season is upon us, replete with Oscars, best and worst lists from the campaigns and New York Times columnist David Brooks' Sidney Awards for the best magazine essays of the past year.
Herewith are my own tributes and anti-tributes. The first annual Pelosi Awards, named for the most effective Speaker of the House in modern memory who rescued health reform from the Brown-out that followed the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, will go to leaders who demonstrated exceptional skill in enacting their beliefs. The McCain Awards, named for the bitter onetime maverick who seizes on every day as another chance to deface his own record and convictions, will recognize politicians who have displayed conspicuous craven conduct in the line of duty.
Fourth runner-up: Retiring Sen. Chris Dodd was forced out of what should have been a safe race for reelection by a series of petty pseudo-scandals. Then, in his last year in the Senate, he took on the flagrant, economy-cratering scandal of unregulated Wall Street speculation. He reached out to his Republican counterpart on the Banking Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, who negotiated in bad faith and then labored to block any progress. Dodd maneuvered around him, enlisted enough Republicans in a filibuster-plagued Senate, and passed the toughest financial reform legislation since the New Deal. (Barney Frank skillfully steered the bill through the House but he didn't have to assemble a supermajority.)
Dodd will be remembered for reigning in market excesses and guarding against the next crash long after the home loan that he received from Countrywide Mortgage — on terms that he could have gotten from virtually any bank — fades into the political twilight.
Third runner-up: Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, backed the START Treaty from the start, defending it as the next essential arms-control agreement with the Russians. Disdaining threats of a Tea Party challenge in 2012, he refused to raise the risks of nuclear conflict and proliferation in order to deny a major achievement to a president of the other party. The right wing seethes in his home state, but for Lugar politics stops at the water's edge, so he paved the way for other Republicans to follow him and vote for the Treaty.
Second runner-up: Sen. John Kerry joined the President in insisting on ratifying START before the end of this Congress — which almost certainly saved both the agreement and the prospects for cooperation with Russia on other issues like Iran and North Korea. Kerry skillfully floor-managed the debate; indeed he's become a major legislative force across the board. On the side, he's also become a second Secretary of State, Obama's emissary to the toughest trouble spots from post-election Afghanistan to the civil war-shredded Sudan. It's a role no Foreign Relations Chairman has ever played before.
First runner-up: Vice President Joe Biden personally bargained with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to shape the December deal that extended all the Bush tax cuts in return for extended unemployment compensation, tax credits for children in working families, and a list of other progressive measures that add up to something few thought was attainable — a second economic stimulus. Biden then braved the wrath of all-or-nothing liberals. With the President, he worked the phones, button-holed his former colleagues, and pushed the deal through, opening the way to action on stalled legislation like the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and health care for the 9-11 responders. A Scranton guy who knew tough times growing up, Biden wasn't going to leave millions of jobless Americans without help or hope in order to make an ideological point.
The winners: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, not a usual favorite of progressives, and Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq vet who lost his seat in November, finish in a tie for prevailing on a cause given up for dead only a month ago. After Senate Republicans filibustered the Defense Appropriations package that would have let gays and lesbians serve openly in the military, Lieberman and Murphy quickly introduced a stand-alone bill that sailed through the House and surmounted yet another filibuster in the Senate. They've written the next great chapter in America's long journey toward equality. You may not always like where Lieberman stands, but he does stand up for what he believes — and he knows how to write it into law. And you may not know much about Patrick Murphy, but you don't need to know more than this to conclude that he needs to be returned to Congress in 2012.
Fourth runner-up: South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham signed up for immigration reform and climate change and energy legislation, then he aborted the process with a spray of transparent rationalizations including the risible explanation that he was abandoning one because Majority Leader Harry Reid was advancing the other. The truth is that Graham was trying to protect the pandering McCain who had originally sponsored immigration reform before scorning it in the face of a primary challenge.
Graham now seems to function as a pitch perfect echo chamber for McCain, demagoging against START and Don't Ask, Don't Tell. So Graham, McCain's mini-me, gets his very own McCain award.
Third runner-up: West Virginia's new Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who supported the filibuster against the military appropriations measure that would have ended discrimination in the armed services. He obviously assumed that the issue was dead; afterwards, he conveniently offered an apology, saying that Don't Ask, Don't Tell "probably should be repealed in the near future."
Then the near future came in the form of the Lieberman-Murphy bill, and Manchin missed that vote as well as the vote on the DREAM Act. Manchin explained that he had to be away at "a family gathering." What he didn't gather was the courage to show up on the Senate floor. He did announce he would have opposed both bills, but he still wanted to have it both ways, saying Obama should "just end" Don't Ask, Don't Tell by executive order. Seldom has any new Senator made a bigger fool of himself in a shorter time.
Second runner-up: Sen. Mitch McConnell warrants a McCain for many reasons. At every turn, he's been the Doctor No of the politics of no — a strategy calculated to stoke the paranoid style in American politics and undermine economic recovery in order to hurt Obama. He did agree to the tax deal that will spur growth and strengthen the safety net for the needy and the unemployed — but only because his consuming passion is top rate tax cuts to comfort the comfortable.
What sealed his McCain Award for unabashed cravenness was his decision to oppose a continuing resolution to fund the government through next September on the grounds that it was too big — and horror of horrors, it contained earmarks. But the price tag of $1.1 trillion was exactly what McConnell and the Republicans had asked for; he won't take yes for an answer if he can score a political point. And In fact, the resolution was rife with earmarks, hundreds of millions of dollars worth — from Republicans.
First runner-up: Defeated liberal Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin pressed the White House not to make the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy an issue in the midterm election. He sought to obscure the popular dividing line that might have rallied middle class voters and saved his seat. In the lame duck, he self-righteously denounced the compromise that saved unemployment compensation and temporarily cut payroll taxes for working families. Feingold is famously quixotic, but in the 2010 campaign, he morphed into what he's always claimed never to be — a politician with his finger in the wind, ready to soft pedal his own conviction. Instead of being quixotic, Feingold became inauthentic.
The winner: Mitt Romney, the Republican opponent John McCain loved to hate in 2008, has become an animatronic figure, one of those awkwardly moving human facsimiles at the old Disneyland who could jerkily pronounce any script they were fed. Romney, as Governor of Massachusetts, negotiated with Ted Kennedy and Democrats there to pass a state health reform that became a model for Obamacare. This year, he's variously explained that they're not the same — they are; that he never approved of the individual mandate — he bragged about it; and that the issue should be left to the states — the latest twist in his contorted attempt to placate the tea-maddened voters who will dominate the 2012 GOP Presidential primaries.
Romney and McCain are in a league of their own when it comes to wholesale flight from their own stated convictions. Romney, once pro-choice, is now fervently anti-choice. Once pro-stem cell research, he's decided that it's the taking of life. Politically it's not clear he believes in anything other than himself. And as he kowtows to the right, it's clear he doesn't care much about facts — or as Sen. Lugar put it, Romney's opportunistic opposition to START was "hyperbolic… misinformed... repeats discredited objections… and appears unaware of arms control history and context." This from a fellow Republican. But of course, Romney is all too aware of what the true believers in his party want and entirely prepared to say virtually anything to erase the scarlet letter of health reform from his campaign portrait.
That's why he also rushed to assail the Obama tax deal, drawing a rebuke from another potential Republican nominee, the unequivocally conservative Sen. John Thune of South Dakota who dismissed Romney as a critic "standing on the sidelines." For all his money and all his flip-flops, that's probably where Romney will be standing when the 2012 primaries conclude. But on the sidelines, he can at least hold onto the bobblehead that goes to the winner in the McCain sweepstakes.
Looming over all this is Barack Obama, a president written off in November who then wrote more history in a few weeks than some presidents do in an entire term. He couldn't have done it without the Pelosi Awardees, or the remarkable woman the award is named for, or the wily Harry Reid — and yes, the Democrats in the House who lost their seats, but held true to their commitments. And Obama did it despite the McCain Awardees.
For the good of the country, here's hoping no one, even the namesake himself, earns a McCain next year. But don't bet on it.