2016 Worst Year in Washington

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Published on December 6, 2016

By many accounts, 2016 has been one of the worst years in history. “One calamity after another,” John Oliver labeled it, citing Syria, Zika and celebrity deaths. Over at Slate, historians urged us to look at 2016 in context – at least it wasn’t 72,000 B.C., when humans came close to extinction. But for some people, 2016 was truly a disaster. And our tradition at The Washington Post is to recognize how bad they had it. Throughout this week, we’ll be rolling out the winners of our awards for Worst Year in Sports, Worst Year in Entertainment, Worst Year in Business, Worst Year in Media and Worst Year in the D.C. area. We'll also unveil the recipient of Best Year in Washington. All building up to the big reveal: Worst Year overall. Let me know, in the comments section or on Twitter (#worstyear2016), if you agree with our picks or want to nominate others.

The “Winners”

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

Knowing what happened, it’s a little hard to recall how confident Democrats were that 2016 would have a happy ending.

Party leaders thought they couldn’t have handpicked a more desirable opponent than Donald Trump. They thought he would be such a drag on the GOP that, along with winning the presidency, Democrats might be able to win back the Senate and the House, a feat thought impossible in the pre-Trump era. “I think we could, today, win everything. Bless his heart. Donald Trump is the gift that keeps giving to us,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in June. And with the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February, Democrats began to imagine the potential of a liberal-majority Supreme Court. “It would enable a revival of a dramatically different role for the court: as an institution that drives social change instead of halting it,” Linda Hirshman wrote in an opinion essay for The Washington Post.

But, of course, 2016 didn’t work out that way . Now the Democrats may be effectively locked out of power in all three branches of government for years. At the state level, after last month’s elections, they’ll control only 16 governorships and 13 legislatures.

This year, punctuated by Hillary Clinton’s loss, exposed the remarkably shallow depth of the Democratic bench. The size of the Republican primary field — for which the GOP was relentlessly mocked — was also a sign of the party’s health up and down the ballot. Democrats simply didn’t have the political talent to put forward 17 candidates (or even seven). That’s partly because there’s been limited opportunity to move up in the leadership ranks. Pelosi (Calif.) and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.) have had a death grip on the party’s top congressional slots for a very long time. It’s also partly because the Democratic farm system is hurting.

Clinton’s formidable political machine scared off most of what little competition she had, and the party lined up behind her. Democratic insiders touted her status as the lone serious contender as a virtue. It demonstrated unity, they said, and she was by far their best candidate anyway, they argued.

Yes, she had one of the most impressive résumés of her generation. She was one of the party’s top fundraisers. And she knew practically every Democratic activist and donor in the country by their first names. But she was also a deeply flawed candidate who was the definition of “the establishment,” making her a remarkably poor fit in a year when anti-establishment sentiment was running so high. That should have been clear when Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a self-avowed democratic socialist, came from nowhere to make the primary a real race and to force the start of a conversation about what sort of party the Democrats should be. It should have been doubly clear when Trump, with no government service, emerged as the GOP nominee.

And yet Clinton ran on her experience, and as close to President Obama and his record as possible. “America is stronger because of President Obama’s leadership, and I am better because of his friendship,” she said when accepting the party’s nomination. “. . . I don’t think President Obama and Vice President Biden get the credit they deserve for saving us from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes.”

Obama, for his part, stumped enthusiastically for Clinton during the general-election campaign. (His persistent critics argued that was because his legacy was at stake.)

But for all their attempts to peacefully pass the baton, the Democrats were hit with one unexpected event after another. Email hacks of the Democratic National Committee and top party operatives — hacks that U.S. intelligence attributed to Russia — forced Democrats on their back foot over and over again. Careful planning for the party’s convention was thrown into disarray when, the day before it began, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned amid outrage over hacked emails that showed she and her team had several fingers on the scale for Clinton in the primary fight. It didn’t help that in the final days of the race, FBI Director James Comey resurrected the debate over the private email server Clinton had used while secretary of state. Whatever his motives, Comey reinforced a point that Trump had been hammering all year: that the Clintons thought they were above the rules and that a cloud of scandal always trailed them.

In the end, Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of all ballots cast. But she couldn’t revive the Obama coalition in key states. And she couldn’t sway the people who wanted the radical change embodied by Trump. What Democrats expected to be the historic election of the first female president was instead a devastating loss — for Clinton, Obama and their political vision. That reversal of fortune was palpable in the days following the election as Democrats reeled from a knockout blow that they never even saw coming.

As Obama’s term winds down, his popularity remains relatively high, but his legacy is very much in question. Trump has talked about repealing large parts of the Affordable Care Act and rolling back executive orders in areas such as immigration and environmental regulation. The Cabinet the president-elect has chosen is among the most conservative in recent memory.

Meanwhile, Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court pick — who, thanks to GOP obstruction, has been in limbo since March — is unlikely to ever take a seat on the nation’s highest court. Instead, Democrats are girding for Trump’s nominees and an onslaught of conservative judicial challenges. Ohio legislators this past week offered a taste of what’s to come with their “heartbeat” bill, prohibiting abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. (Typically around six weeks, before most women even know they’re pregnant.)

The state of the Democratic Party was perhaps best illustrated by the desperate hope generated this past week by Biden’s offhand comment about running for president in 2020. Biden would be 78, a little on the old side even when you consider that the soon-to-be sitting president will then be 74. Elizabeth Warren, the other oft-mentioned savior of the Democrats, will be 71 years oldwhen that race comes around — not exactly the next generation of party leadership. Among younger Democrats, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, now 47, is seen as the next big thing, but the campaign he ran to get to the Senate wasn’t confidence-inspiring.

Obama, to his credit, seems to grasp the party’s problems and how to fix them. He has pledged to raise money (and attention) for the next round of redistricting, when Democrats can truly begin to rebuild their ranks. But that's not until after the 2020 election.

Perhaps most important, there’s a deep divide within the party over the way forward from a policy perspective. Do Democrats embrace the cultural liberalism and creative-class appeal of the Obama years? Or do they return to the working-man message of the Biden wing? Who decides? How? When?

This is what being on the wrong side of a massive bet looks like. It’s a lousy way to start 2017.

The Best Year in Washington

Donald Trump

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

"Our main story tonight, and I cannot believe I’m saying this, is Donald Trump,” John Oliver said to boos and knowing laughter in his studio on Feb. 28.

Until then, not even comedians had considered Trump seriously. Sure, he had lasted longer and polled better in the preliminary stages of the presidential race than conventional political wisdom expected. But it had often seemed that his fade was imminent — that we had seen peak Trump. His loss to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses strengthened that sentiment.

Then he won the New Hampshire primary, and in state after state. Although the Republican primary fight lasted until May 3, it was clear much sooner that Trump was going to be the nominee. For all of the #NeverTrump movement’s best efforts, the real estate mogul secured the nomination more easily and more convincingly than Mitt Romney had four years earlier.

But the primary race and the general election are two different animals, right? Trump’s appeal could never find purchase in a broad enough swath of the country for him to possibly win, many of us assumed. His endless stream of controversial remarks — about women, about Hispanics, about, well, everyone — would doom him. It had to.

It didn’t. Trump was right all along, and we, the political class, were flat-out wrong. Trump effectively channeled anger and anxiety into a movement.

It didn’t matter that most people didn’t like him, didn’t think he had the temperament for the job, didn’t believe he was qualified to do it. People hated politics, hated Washington, hated where the country was headed and desperately wanted change — even a radical one. Four in 10 people in exit polls said a candidate’s ability to “bring needed change” was the most important quality in deciding their votes; Trump won that group 83 percent to 14 percent over Hillary Clinton.

Trump pulled off the largest upset in the history of modern presidential politics. (Sorry, Harry Truman!) He began 2016 as a punch line. He ends it as the president-elect. Not bad.

The Worst Year in Business

Elizabeth Holmes

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

In 2015, Forbes estimated Elizabeth Holmes’s net worth at $4.5 billion. By June of this year, the magazine had revised its estimate. The new net worth for Holmes? $0.

What happened is the stuff of fictional drama.

Holmes was the whiz-kid founder of Theranos, a Silicon Valley company that sought to revolutionize disease diagnosis. Its proprietary technology was supposed to be able to test for hundreds of diseases by analyzing a few drops of blood drawn from a finger. Its promise — and the 32-year-old Holmes’s hustle — made her into a legend, the youngest female self-made billionaire. The New YorkerFortuneInc. and others wrote glowing profiles. Marc Andreessen, tech investor and co-founder of Netscape, hailed her as the next Steve Jobs.

The only problem: Her technology didn't work.

Government regulators found major inaccuracies in Theranos’s lab results. And an October 2015 Wall Street Journal story reported that the company was having to do “the vast majority of its tests with traditional machines,” rather than its own devices, and either diluting those few drops of blood or using more traditional blood samples to get the volume necessary for testing.

In 2016, Holmes continued to promote the Theranos revolution. But it became clear that her pitch was far better than her product.

Throughout the year, Theranos has been under investigation — by the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In May, the company voided or revised tens of thousands of test results from 2014 and 2015. In June, Walgreens shut down all the blood-draw sites it had allowed Theranos to run in its stores. (It's now suing Theranos for breach of contract.) In July, federal regulators imposed sanctions and sought to ban Holmes from owning or operating any sort of lab for two years. In October, Holmes announced that Theranos was suspending its blood-testing business and cutting 40 percent of its staff. It faces multiple class-action lawsuits filed by patients who say faulty tests put their lives at risk and by investors alleging fraud.

Holmes remains defiant. She’s appealing her two-year ban and insists that the lawsuits are without merit. She’s trying to revive her company with a different blood-testing instrument. But she has to realize: She flew way too close to the sun — and got burned.

The Worst Year in Media

Roger Ailes

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

Like him or hate him, Roger Ailes had been on a two-decade hot streak.

Ailes made Fox News into a ratings powerhouse, and helped make the post-Reagan Republican Party, by combining news, politics and entertainment. As biographer Gabriel Sherman has written: “Ailes was able to personally shape the national conversation and political fortunes as no one ever had before. It is not a stretch to argue that Ailes is largely responsible for, among other things, the selling of the Iraq War, the Swift-boating of John Kerry, the rise of the tea party, the sticking power of a host of Clinton scandals, and the purported illegitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency.”

On July 6, Ailes became the scandal. Former anchor Gretchen Carlsonfiled a sexual harassment suit claiming that he had behaved inappropriately toward her for years and fired her for rebuffing his advances. Ailes denied the charges and sought to rally Fox’s talent behind him. Yet more than two dozen other women made similar allegations, including the brightest star in the Fox firmament: Megyn Kelly. Those revelations — combined with owner Rupert Murdoch’s discomfort with the pro-Trump direction in which Ailes had steered the network and the anti-Ailes bent of Murdoch's sons — doomed the most successful man in cable news. Two weeks after Carlson came forward, Ailes was out as head of Fox News.

Ailes once said that “I have been through about 12 train wrecks in my career. Somehow, I always walk away.” Even this year, as additional harassment claims kept his story in the news, it seemed possible he could make it out alive. In August, the New York Times reported that he was helping Donald Trump prep for the presidential debates. The Trump campaign denied it . But that didn’t stop speculation that, if Trump lost, Ailes might find enough wiggle room in his noncompete clause to advise Trump and Breitbart’s Steve Bannon on the launch of Trump TV. And if Trump managed to win, well, Ailes had been a valuable media consultant to Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But by October, the relationship between Trump and Ailes had reportedly soured. There’s been no mention of a possible White House role for him. Meanwhile, the release of Kelly’s memoir dealt a further blow, with its allegations that Ailes offered to promote her “in exchange for sexual favors.”

For Ailes, there may be no walking away from 2016.

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area

The Metro

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

The Metro system in Washington has not covered itself in glory lately. Complaints have become so frequent in recent years that more than 66,000 people now follow the amazing Unsuck DC Metro Twitter feed — or one of the other similar feeds that have sprung up to criticize the system. But 2016 was Metro’s Waterloo.

The trouble all began with “arcing .” That’s when electricity jumps from the third rail to the ground, potentially starting fires. But you already knew that if you rode Metro during the first five months of the year, when smoke-filled tunnels and delays because of arcing were rampant.

Then came that fateful Friday in May when Paul Wiedefeld, Metro’s new general manager, announced that large swaths of the subway would shut down for long-overdue maintenance. “It’s what needs to be done,” Wiedefeld told The Post. “It’s going to impact people’s lives; it’s going to impact businesses, all of that.”

He wasn’t kidding. The program — dubbed SafeTrack in a terrific bit of PR work — limited train traffic or halted it entirely for weeks at a time. No line was spared. To his credit, Wiedefeld stuck to his guns, weathering criticism from commuters for his unilateral decision.

But SafeTrack wasn’t his only problem.

In late July, a train derailed near the East Falls Church station on the Orange and Silver lines. No one was injured, but the accident raised questions about whether SafeTrack was actually helping — even though the area where the train jumped the track was not part of the program. And the derailment came in the same month as a “near-miss collision” on the Red Line.

As summer turned to fall, things didn’t improve much. SafeTrack closures produced angry commuters, who reveled in posting pictures to social media of the massive throngs inside stations. And when the Washington Nationals made the baseball playoffs, Metro riders who wanted to watch all nine innings were out of luck. System officials refused to extend operating hours past midnight, even during the deciding game of the National League Division Series — prompting chants of “Metro sucks ” throughout Nationals Park (even though few people left to catch the last train).

Looking back at the past year, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the DMV who would disagree.

The Worst Year in Entertainment

The Oscars

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

It’s pretty hard to mess up the Oscars. Beautiful people, good movies and zany acceptance speeches. Win, win, win.

This year, however, the Academy Awards were shrouded in controversy and threatened by the cultural cluelessness of one of America’s leading cultural institutions. For the second year in a row, every nominee for the four acting awards — best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress — was white.

The backlash was immediate and major. Director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith said they would not attend the awards show. David Oyewelo , who was snubbed as the star of 2014’s “Selma,” seethed: “For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.” The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and calls for a boycott proliferated.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a group of more than 7,000 people with a variety of affiliations with the movie industry — responded with a promise to double the number of female and minority members by 2020 and to rescind the lifetime membership clause. Women make up fewer than 1 in 4 academy members; people of color fewer than 1 in 10. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the only African American on the 51-member board.

Those changes took some of the heat out of the controversy. As did Chris Rock’s hosting  of the ceremony, which he unflinchingly called the “White People’s Choice Awards.”

It’s hard to imagine that we’ll see a third consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite. As African American Film Critics Association President Gil Robertson noted, 2016 has been “a bonanza year for black cinema” — with “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving” and “Moonlight” all generating Oscar buzz. Also, the academy can’t possibly be that out of touch. But it shouldn’t have taken until the 89th Oscars for it to register that there’s a problem.

The Worst Year in Sports

Ryan Lochte

Tuesday, Dec. 6:

The Worst Year in Entertainment: The Oscars

The Worst Year in Sports: Ryan Lochte

Wednesday, Dec. 7:

The Worst Year in Media: Roger Ailes

The Worst Year in the D.C. Area: The Metro

Thursday, Dec. 8:

The Worst Year in Business: Elizabeth Holmes

The Best Year in Washington: Donald Trump

Friday, Dec. 9:

The Worst Year in Washington: Democrats

The Summer Olympics are supposed to be a quadrennial celebration of sports and international friendship. They’re also, usually, a three-week distraction from whatever is bad in the world.

This summer, we really needed that distraction. Terrorist attacks around the globe. A still-sluggish economic recovery. A presidential race defined by how much everyone hated the two major-party nominees.

The nation turned its lonely eyes to Brazil in hopes of finding something, anything, to rally behind. Instead, we got Ryan Lochte.

In the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games, Lochte was the Robin to Michael Phelps’s Batman. Lochte won — he has 12 medals, including six golds — but his star never shone as bright as Phelps’s did. He was known as a great swimmer with not a ton going on between his ears. (The 2013 docu-series “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” played up his frequent blank stares.)

Boy oh boy, did Lochte live up to that reputation in Rio.

As you’ll recall, Lochte reported that he and three teammates were pulled over and robbed at gunpoint by men bearing police badges. The story was huge news, thanks to Lochte’s celebrity and how it fed concerns that Rio wasn’t up for playing host. But it quickly grew into an international scandal, after Brazilian police thoroughly discredited the account. Turns out the swimmers had vandalized a gas station — with Lochte punching down a sign — and a security guard had pulled a gun while demanding that they pay for the damage. Rio police charged Lochte with filing a false crime report, though by then he had left the country.

To avoid a lifetime swimming ban, Lochte mustered a lame apology “for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events.” He is now serving a 10-month suspension from USA Swimming and won’t be able to compete in the 2017 world championships. He also lost an estimated $1 million in sponsorship deals with the likes of Speedo and Ralph Lauren.

For Lochte, the incident may have been career-ending. For America, it unnecessarily tarnished the otherwise impressive cache of medals the nation’s athletes took home.

#ThanksLochte

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