My 2008 "McLaughlin Awards" [Part 2]

Love her or hate her, you have to admit that John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for the Republican ticket this year wasthe boldest political tactic of the year.
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Welcome (once again) to the second part of my annual tribute to the McLaughlin Awards. [Part 1 ran last week, in case you missed it.]

Now, the McLaughlin Group television show (on a PBS channel near you) last week did not do Part 1 of their awards, so it looks like they're running a week late. But my schedule is locked in, so we continue with our year-end awards here, and hopefully you'll be able to check my picks with theirs next week (and my picks last week with what they run this week). Got all that? Well, don't worry, there won't be a quiz at the end or anything.

Also, just for comparison's sake (to see how many things I got wrong, in other words), here are the previous two years' columns:

Destined For Political Stardom

Three names suggest themselves in this category. The first, sad to say, is Sarah Palin. While some dismiss her with the term (which she herself uttered on Saturday Night Live) "Caribou Barbie," my educated guess is that we have not seen the last of Alaska's governor on the national stage. Because while the list of things Palin lacks is long and daunting, she has one star quality which may prove to be strong enough to cancel all the rest out -- charisma. A politician can learn about such mundane things as world events and how to speak with political finesse, but charisma can't really be learned -- it's more of an innate quality. And Palin's got it. For those laughing at the prospect of Sarah Palin ever reappearing, I caution that when Ronald Reagan first ran for president, we all laughed at him, too. An actor becoming president? Pre-pos-terous! So don't underestimate charisma, or Palin's ambition.

The second name which suggested itself is Joe Biden's son Beau Biden. It seems Joe's Senate seat will go to a placeholder who will vacate the office in two years (thus allowing Beau to run), meaning that he is destined if not for stardom, at least to a place on the national stage. Keep an eye on Beau in the future, as he appears to be headed for big things.

But the winner in this category is Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. He is young, he is a minority, and he is Republican. That alone guarantees that he will be seriously considered by the party as a GOP antidote to Barack Obama. Jindal recently said that he wasn't even interested in running in 2012, unless Obama royally screws up, but I would keep an eye on how many times he visits Iowa in the next few years, myself. Republicans know they're getting killed demographically, as the party shrinks to a very white, very old base. They know they have to do something to reverse this trend. The only problem is they don't have a lot of minority officeholders to choose from. Which puts Bobby Jindal front and center. Barring a Louisiana-sized scandal, Jindal seems destined for political stardom in the near future.

Destined For Political Oblivion

Democrats would absolutely love to put Sarah Palin in this column, but I disagree, as I stated above. Eliot Spitzer almost got this award, but I see he is reinventing himself as a journalist, so the jury's still out (so to speak) on his political future relevance. Ted Stevens was considered as well, but the people back in Alaska love him so much, and (more importantly) have named so many things after him, that his future in the history of the state is pretty much already written in stone. Sure, there'll be a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger footnote, but Stevens will long be remembered in the state of Alaska -- meaning, by definition, he can't win this award. Illinois' governor also seems in a pretty bad spot, but Blaggy says he's going to fight back, and stranger political revivals have been known (Marion Barry, for instance).

Which pretty much leaves the Bush administration. It's hard to pick just one out of this den of rascals, but upon reflection I'm going to award Condoleezza Rice the "Destined for Political Oblivion" award. She should have resigned on September 12, 2001, she has done nothing of any real note since (except lie to Congress with a straight face), and she herself says she just wants to retreat into academia for the rest of her life (Stanford will find some job for her, I'm sure). Which pretty much guarantees her destined political oblivion.

Best Political Theater

Who should get this award depends on how you define the term. Democrats would likely award "Most Amusing Political Theater" to President Bush getting two shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist, for instance. Or if you define "best" as "most magnificent," you would have to award it to Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Republicans made fools of themselves complaining about Roman columns as backdrop (which is a pretty standard political backdrop, used by both parties throughout the years), and complaining that Obama was accommodating a throng of 80,000 people in a football stadium (since when has "being popular" been a bad thing for a politician?). When Obama strode up to the lectern, none of that mattered. What a speech! What a crowd! What a spectacle! What great political theater!

But I'm defining the term more towards the "theater" side than the "political" side this year, and am awarding this year's "Best Political Theater" to Tina Fey's brilliant and scathing portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. The first time I saw a photo of Sarah Palin, the first thing that popped into my mind (I swear) was: Tina Fey has got to play her! They look so much alike!

I was basing that solely upon looks, I should mention. All Fey needed to do to portray Palin was to put her hair up and don a red jacket. But that was before I saw her actually do it. Fey captured the accent and mannerisms of Palin so well, and the SNL writers did a great job by sticking so closely to Palin's actual words (Palin's own words needed no satirizing, they were ridiculous enough on their own, and they needed a very light comedic touch in order to make them even more hilarious). And Fey uttered the immortal line (which got quoted more than anything Palin actually said) -- "I can see Russia from my house!" Which all adds up to Tina Fey walking off with the Best Political Theater of 2008.

Worst Political Theater

A strong case could be made for the auto executives arriving in Washington in hybrid vehicles, as a photo-op stunt after the public relations disaster of flying down previously -- each executive in his own private jet. Now this was just silly on so many levels. First, if you looked closely, those were chauffeured hybrids, since actually driving was apparently beneath such powerful executives. Secondly, we didn't hear a peep about Wall Street executives flying private planes to be grilled by Congress when they needed a bailout -- because there was no congressional grilling of these executives to begin with. But while the whole thing was just an exercise in ridiculousness, it still doesn't merit the Worst Political Theater award this year.

Because that is reserved for John Edwards. The heartbreaking press conference he gave to announce his wife's cancer had returned (and his use of his wife throughout his campaign), were seen in quite a different light when the "love child" story broke. Nothing was remotely as exploitatively bad as Edwards' political theater, at least seen in hindsight after the scandal broke. So Worst Political Theater of 2008 goes to John Edwards, hands down.

Worst Political Scandal

With four big ones to choose from, selecting one was kind of tough this year. John Edwards' self-destruction, Eliot Spitzer's self-destruction, and the ongoing Blagojevich scandal all deserve a dis-honorable mention here.

But seen purely politically, Ted Stevens stands head-and-shoulders beneath the other three (so to speak). Because by hanging on and running again with a damn-the-torpedoes attitude, Stevens turned over what had been considered a safe Republican seat to the Democrats this year. Meaning his scandal affected more than just his own reputation. Again, I'm not saying that what Stevens did was any worse than what the rest of them did, what I am saying is that his had wider consequences politically. Also, he was convicted in a federal court for what he did, which none of the others can claim (yet).

Most Underreported Story

As usual, there is a lot to choose from in this category. Darfur, for instance. Or, to be fair to the man, John Edwards' second-place finish in the Iowa caucus -- the mainstream news barely mentioned the fact that he beat Hillary Clinton, which only hastened his exit from the race. And the virtual media blackout on protests at both parties' national conventions this year was a disgrace.

But to me, the biggest underreported story of 2008 was the way President Bush got absolutely strong-armed during the negotiations for a Status Of Forces Agreement by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki of Iraq. Bush started negotiations in typical "my way or the highway" style, but Maliki proved to be adept at getting virtually everything he wanted, while leaving Bush virtually nothing in the process. In the end, Bush had to sign on to a hard and fast timetable for the withdrawal of American forces, contradicting everything he had been saying about such a timetable, pretty much since the war began. This should have been big news, but somehow wasn't. Maybe it was a combination of Bush fatigue and Iraq fatigue, but the media really dropped the ball on this one.

Most Overreported Story

As always, I shy away from all the celebrity news here (because it's just so obvious, mostly). A strong case could be made for "the Olympics," but that was mostly NBC trying to recoup the exorbitant amount of money it keeps paying for exclusive television rights to the games.

Because I am going to have to say the Most Overreported Story was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, with Bill Ayers in a close second. Partly it was because the story broke in the middle of a long six-week break in the primary schedule, and partly because Hillary Clinton did her part to push the story, but for something like a solid month you couldn't turn on a television without seeing a five-second clip of one of Wright's sermons. Why are lefty preachers held to higher standards than righty preachers? Who knows... but the hyperventilating over Wright was just too much, in my humble opinion.

Biggest Government Waste

And we have a tie in the Biggest Government Waste category!

First up is our reconstruction of Iraq. The Inspector General just leaked a draft report (the full report is due in February) that details exactly how much money was wasted, in so many different ways. Billions and billions, just flat-out wasted.

Larger in scale, but closer to home, we have the Wall Street bailout. Giving the Bush folks seven hundred billion dollars and not requiring them to even say how the money was or will be spent will likely go down as one of the stupidest things Congress has ever done in the entire history of the United States of America. Now, maybe the money was necessary, I'm not saying it wasn't here. But writing such a gargantuan blank check, and not requiring any accountability over the money -- and passing it faster than a speeding bullet -- is just stunning in its stupidity.

So reconstructing Iraq and the no-questions-asked Wall Street bailout are going to have to share this year's Biggest Government Waste award.

Best Government Dollar Spent

Because it's the holidays and I'm in a mellow mood, I'd like to toss a bone (and not my shoes) to President Bush. Because he has done one thing with my tax dollars that I approve of, and he's pushed the issue more than anyone else ever has. The scourge of AIDS in Africa is something that doesn't get a lot of press here, but it has been a human catastrophe of almost unimaginable scope. And Bush sent a lot more money to Africa than ever before. Now, some of his foreign policies are still idiocy -- such as balking at distributing condoms, or the global gag rule on abortion -- but at least Bush did some things that were helpful, and he spent a lot of money on it.

But I have to actually give the Best Government Dollar Spent this year, sadly, to the extension of unemployment benefits by Congress. Economists will tell you that you get more "bang for the buck" in terms of stimulating the economy by alleviating unemployment in this fashion than by almost anything else you can do. Democrats got it passed, and they got Bush to sign it, and for that they deserve credit, and this year's award.

Boldest Political Tactic

This is one of those "nothing else comes close" categories.

Because -- love her or hate her -- you have to admit that John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for the Republican ticket this year was without any doubt the boldest political tactic of the year. McCain gambled, and he lost. But he threw those dice in a big way, and elevated Palin out of obscurity to being (potentially) a heartbeat away from running the country.

We'll never know his real reasoning for doing so. He may have been courting women (former Hillary supporters), he may have been courting conservatives (who had never really been happy with McCain), and he may have just picked her for her crowd appeal. But to even suggest that she was "the best and most qualified person for the job" was so laughable, that it was obvious that McCain was doubling down on his chances with an enormous political gamble. It didn't pay off, but if the economy had tanked two weeks after the election rather than just before, election night would have likely been a lot closer. Palin's pick elevated McCain's numbers to where he was beating Obama by a few points -- the only time in the entire general election campaign he managed to do so.

Of course, then Palin talked with a few reporters, and it all fell apart. But for sheer boldness, nothing else was even in the same league last year as Sarah Palin's pick.

Best Idea

Again, I have to award a tie in this category.

First is the idea that going green and getting America off its dependence on foreign oil is a valid thing for the country to do. Before Al Gore made this idea respectable, it was in the "tin foil hat" category for a lot of Americans (including much of the mainstream media). It was considered the wacky ravings of some hippie in California, and most decidedly not to be taken seriously. Post-Gore it has become mainstream. Everybody recycles now, not just hippies. Our new president has shown a strong commitment to changing the way we all think about energy and what the future is going to look like. Some have likened it to Kennedy calling for a moon landing within a decade. But the idea that if we don't have to buy foreign oil anymore -- and therefore don't have to give billions to people who hate us -- is now well on its way to becoming conventional wisdom that nobody even questions. For this achievement, going green gets Best Idea of 2008.

But it has to share the award with Howard Dean. Because Dean changed the way Democrats looked at the political map with his "50-state strategy." And you can see how successful this has been by comparing a map of congressional districts before Dean took the helm of the DNC, and how it looked after the 2008 election. Likewise, comparing the electoral map from 2004 to the 2008 map also shows how Dean's strategy paid off. Democrats took Virginia. And North Carolina. And those are just the two most obvious examples. So although Dean thought this strategy up before 2008 even dawned, the idea was brought to wonderful fruition in the 2008 election cycle, and Dean deserves credit for that. Also, he deserves a new job, now that he's stepping down from DNC chair.

Worst Idea

If this were "worst idea since Ronald Reagan took office" then "deregulation" would win hands down. Allowing the financial markets to police themselves was a monumentally stupid idea that we are all now paying for. But it took place over decades, not really within the scope of last year.

Florida and Michigan both deserve runner-up prizes in this category, for moving their primaries too early -- even though they were warned they'd lose their delegates as a result -- and then having the gall to complain about it when their delegates were stripped. You'd think such a monumental screwup would bring about primary calendar reform, but I'm not exactly holding my breath waiting for it.

But the truly worst idea of 2008 was the reappearance -- at both conventions -- of the "free speech zone." Will we have to tell our grandchildren, "I remember when the whole country was a free speech zone," or will we ever get rid of this abomination on our own? American citizens are guaranteed the right to protest in the Bill of Rights. But the concept of "security" is making it less and less likely that political protests will ever reach the ears of the people who matter, since the "free speech zones" are always conveniently out of ear-shot and eye-shot of the actual event. This is an outrage against the freedoms we are promised as citizens, and it needs to end.

Sorry To See You Go

Sorry to see you go: Arthur C. Clarke, George Carlin, (very soon now) First Cat Socks Clinton, Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes, Michael Crichton, Bo Diddley, Harvey Korman.

Sorry to see you die, but not sorry to see you leave your job: Tony Snow.

Not sorry at all to see you go: Jesse Helms.

15 Minutes Of Fame

Truly, there can only be one. In anticipation of him becoming a trivia answer in the very near future, the 15 Minutes Of Fame award goes to Joe The Plumber.

See, you've already forgotten his last name, haven't you?

It's Wurzelbacher.

Joe The Plumber was thrust into the spotlight by John McCain during a debate, and his life will never be the same again. He showed a nimbleness in his attitudes on taxes that deserves the Orwellian "doublethink" award as well -- when he was talking about owning his own business and making over a quarter-million dollars a year, raising his taxes outraged him. High taxes for Joe are bad, in other words. Then when called on the carpet and informed that by his own income, he was going to save money by paying less taxes under Obama's plan, instead of the standard Republican talking point ("the government needs to give me back more of MY MONEY that they are taking"), he came up with a mind-blowing reversal: since he would be paying less taxes, that meant that someone richer was paying more taxes, and therefore it was nothing but (gasp!) socialism. In other words, low taxes for Joe are bad. This head-snapping mental U-turn was never given the ridicule it deserved at the time, which is why I bring it up now.

Wurzelbacher. Remember it. Wurzelbacher. When playing "Trivial Pursuit" in the year 2015, you will earn a wedge for knowing his last name.

Best Spin

While "Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee" was certainly a strong contender, this year's Best Spin award goes to Sarah Palin.

She actually gets it for two pieces of choice, Grade-A quality spin. The first was she was the only candidate in the race with "executive experience." Whoooo, doggie! That's a pretty whopping amount of spin right there, you betcha! Being mayor of Wasilla was somehow supposed to be more impressive than a few decades in the Senate (Biden, McCain), or time spent in the state legislature and the Senate (Obama). My old Cub Scout den mother could be said to have "executive experience" as well... I guess... but it doesn't mean she qualifies to be vice president, if you know what I mean.

The second world-class spin that came from Palin was that Barack Obama was some sort of secret socialist. Um... excuse me? Now, I can fully understand why any true red-blooded conservative thinks pretty much anything government does for anybody is "socialism." It's part of their creed, and therefore I expect that sort of thing. But from the governor of Alaska, it is ludicrous. Absolutely insane. Alaska is pretty much our only state government which runs on strict socialist theory. They take from the rich (the oil companies) through taxes and fees, and then they pay for their entire government from this money, and what is left over is redistributed to the people in cash payments each and every year. This is about as close to the dictionary definition of socialism as you can find in America. And yet, this didn't faze Palin one tiny little bit. She gambled that the mainstream media would never notice this massively hypocritical discrepancy, and instead attacked Obama mercilessly for being a socialist and wanting to redistribute wealth.

Like I said, for any Republican outside the state of Alaska, this wouldn't even merit a mention. But Sarah Palin is the governor of the state. Her spin job on this to the media was complete, and utterly effective.

So while either one of these would win Palin the Best Spin award, taken together they show that nobody else was even in the same league.

Most Honest Person

While Dennis Kucinich, Matt Gravel, and Ron Paul all qualified for the finals, none made it to the top. Stuart Bowen Jr. is also worth mentioning here (he's the
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction mentioned in the Biggest Government Waste award category, earlier). The runner-up in this category is going to surprise a few, though, since I have to mention Karl Rove's honesty here.

[They fainted! Get some water... give 'em some air here... wait, they're coming around...]

OK, sitting down? I should have warned you, I'm sorry.

Shocking as it sounds, Karl Rove was hired by Fox News as a political analyst for the election this year. And Karl surprised me by actually telling the truth. Every week he'd show his little electoral map, and each time it reflected reality. Or, at the very least, the reality of what the polls were actually saying. While other stations seemingly wanted "a close race" right up to the end (to improve news ratings, no doubt), Rove showed that it was going to be an Obama landslide. Week after week, he stood up and told a heavily right-wing audience what it did not want to hear -- that Barack Obama was going to be our next president. So I have to give Karl Rove at least an honorable mention here.

But the real Most Honest Person of 2008 is Thomas M. Tamm, who blew the whistle on the illegal wiretapping the Bush administration was doing. We may never have heard about it if Tamm hadn't picked up a pay phone and called the New York Times. OK, technically he did it last year, but his life has been hell ever since, and he is now publicly telling his story -- against the advice of his lawyers. Tamm saw something he thought was wrong and illegal, and he told the media so we could all have the discussion about whether we should be doing it or not. He paid a heavy price, and may some day serve a prison sentence for doing so. And for that, he gets Most Honest Person of 2008.

Most Overrated

Hoo boy, lots to choose from here. Hillary Clinton's inevitability. Sarah Palin. Fred Thompson, for that matter. Or how about the entire media, for their pathetic issue-free coverage of the presidential election?

While all of those are worth mentioning, I'm going to give the award to Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson. They came and sang their Chicken-Little-esque song to Congress about how the planet was going to stop revolving unless we got rid of the toxic mortgages by Tuesday at 4:00 P.M., and then when Congress gave them a pile of dollar bills that would reach the moon, they turned around and used the money for other purposes. The big secret that they don't want anyone to know is that they, too, have no clue whatsoever about how to fix the economy. And for that, they both get the Most Overrated award.

Most Underrated

This award goes, in a tie, to two Davids.

The first is David Plouffe, who was Barack Obama's campaign manager. Plouffe ran as near a perfect political campaign as I have ever seen. And this was his first national campaign.

Obama himself said of Plouffe in his victory speech: "the unsung hero of this campaign, who built the ... best political campaign, I think, in the history of the United States of America." It's hard to argue with that.

But Plouffe will have to share his Most Underrated award with David Letterman. Laugh if you will, but almost the entire political chattering class missed this one in a big way, which is the very definition of the award.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you don't stay up late to watch television. Because the day McCain rushed back to Washington in a vain gimmick to save the economy, he also blew off an appearance on Letterman's show. Later, Letterman learned that McCain had not, in fact, returned to Washington, but was instead giving Katie Couric an interview while Letterman's show was taping. And Letterman let McCain have it with both barrels. Night after night after night. This went on for weeks, in the closing days of the campaign. Now, you can "tut tut" at the fact that a lot of Americans get their political news solely from late-night comedians, but to do so is to underestimate their influence in the zeitgeist.

McCain did underestimate this, and it cost him. How much we'll never know, but I would bet the farm on the fact that the effect was underestimated by the media at large. Which earns him the Most Underrated award.

Honorable Mention

Well, I just didn't know where else to put these two, so I'm sticking them in honorable mention. Maybe it should be dis-honorable mention, you decide. I don't know that they deserve any award, but they're worth mentioning because they were part of the fabric (pun intended) of political life in 2008.

"Drill baby, drill!" Wasn't this annoying? Well, yes, but the chant heard at the Republican National Convention (and elsewhere in Republican crowds) just goes to show -- once again -- that Republicans are just better at this "framing" stuff than Democrats. To reduce our energy choices for the future to three powerful words was so intimidating that Democrats in Congress immediately caved in to the pressure, and threw away offshore drilling bans that had been in place for years. That's power, boiled down into three words, and for that alone it's worth a mention.

And lastly, no roundup of the past year would be complete without mentioning Sarah Palin's wardrobe. I still say the Republican National Committee missed a huge fundraising opportunity here, and could have auctioned off anything bought for Palin (whether she actually wore it or not) at a healthy profit. Instead, reportedly, they donated the whole $150,000 worth to charity. So that homeless women have designer gowns to wear to their alley, I guess. The whole thing was just so mis-handled from the beginning that it deserves some sort of special mention here.


First, let's see how I did last year. Here were my predictions for 2008:

Oil will start trading in Euros and move away from the U.S. dollar.

Hong Kong or Taiwan (or possibly both) will use the fact that the world's media will be focused on Beijing for the Olympics to do something provocative right before they begin. The temptation to do so will be enormous, since they'll see it as the best possible time for some movement towards independence. Beijing's hands will be tied, at least until after the ceremonies are over and everyone goes home.

Oh, that brings up a corollary -- NBC's coverage of the Olympics will suck badly. [OK, this one's a no-brainer, I realize, but I just had to throw it in there to up my statistics next year.]

The Republicans will not know who their presidential nominee will be until March (at the earliest) and possibly even later. There's even a slight chance they'll make it all the way to their convention without a clear candidate.

Democrats take the White House. Democrats gain 25 seats in the House, and 7 seats in the Senate.

OK, one at a time. Oil is still trading in dollars, so I got that wrong. Russia was the one to bust out a military move at the beginning of the Olympics, but I called the timing right, so I'm awarding myself a half-point for that one. NBC's coverage did indeed suck. That bit about March works if you use the word "Democrats" instead of "Republicans," but I can't really call that one a win. Democrats took the White House, gained 21 seats in the House and seven (possibly eight) seats in the Senate. All around, not too shabby in the guesswork department.

Which sets the stage for predictions for 2009. Here we go...

Al Franken will (eventually) be seated as Minnesota's new senator.

Jesse Jackson Junior will win Illinois' Senate seat in a special election.

Andrew Cuomo will be New York's next senator, and Caroline Kennedy will not.

Guantanamo will cease to exist as a prison, as Barack closes the doors on this sad chapter in American law.

Some sort of Truth Commission will be appointed to look into the conduct (wiretapping, torturing, rendering prisoners) of the Bush administration during the past eight years. Many facts will emerge, but nobody will ever be convicted of any crimes as a result.

Obama will have to wait until 2010 to get his health care legislation passed, but will manage next year to get some sort of framework in place to move us off imported oil in a decade. Whether it will ultimately succeed or not is beyond my crystal ball's view, but Obama will get the process started next year.

Fidel Castro will die, and American/Cuban relations will begin to thaw.

New Year's Resolution

Come snow, sleet, driving rain, or black of night, I will be at Barack Obama's Inauguration. You don't get a chance to see history like this very often, and I'm making the effort to be there in person.

And now, true to the McLaughlin style, I bid you:


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

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