Topic A: What will be 2011's biggest political surprise?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Post asked political experts to predict the biggest political surprise of 2011. Below are responses from Ed Rogers, Jennifer Palmieri, Douglas E. Schoen, Robert Shrum, Dan Schnur, Dana Perino and Catherine A. "Kiki" McLean.


Chairman of BGR Group; White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

The biggest political surprise in 2011 may come in the form of the shock produced by public-sector labor strikes and demonstrations that could stray into civil disorder as state and local governments cut budgets. Government workers could be laid off by the thousands, and millions of the beneficiaries of government-supplied salaries, pensions and benefits could see reductions in pay and program allowances they have been told to expect.

The same kind of protests that have rocked Paris, London and Rome could erupt in California, New York and Illinois.

We are heading into uncharted political territory as state and local governments face the reality that promises can't be kept. Will the unionized government institutions go down without a fight? Will the dependent class of Americans that government has created just shrug and accept the spending-cut medicine?

The schism between the governed and those governing could become greater than ever as the government tries to protect itself for its own sake and not for the public good. The millions of Americans who have lost jobs or face increasing economic uncertainty resent the relative posterity and security that government now provides for itself. President Obama will say he is for more "stimulus," but even the money-making printing presses in Washington are at their limits.

Besides, with a Republican majority in the House and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell having veto power in the Senate, there will not be a bailout from Washington.

Fasten your seat belts; there is trouble ahead.


President of the Center for American Progress Action Fund; deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House

Republican efforts to repeal health care-reform will do more to sell the public on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act than any education efforts to date.

Despite having spent more than a year wrangling over the bill, Congress has yet to have a true debate over health care - a discussion in which both sides put forward policy ideas and the two approaches are compared. That's not what happened with health care. Democrats put forward ideas and critics attacked them, often untruthfully. It was the ACA vs. the perfect. Such was the prerogative of the minority; they could sit on the sidelines and take pot shots without ever having to launch a policy offensive of their own. The result has been a perpetuation of myths and confusion about the legislation enacted in March.

The media is somewhat complicit in abetting this one-sided debate. To their credit, some Republicans, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), put forward alternative policy ideas, but since Republican proposals had no chance of being enacted, they received little coverage.

This year will be different. Efforts to repeal the ACA will spur coverage and discussion of what the bill actually does. Republican alternatives will be scrutinized, and the virtues of the ACA will be weighed against these proposals - not against the perfect.

The repeal debate gives supporters of the Affordable Care Act a do-over in educating the public on the merits of the bill. Let's take it.


Democratic pollster and author

The biggest political surprise of 2011 will be the emergence of a potentially serious third-party candidate for president in 2012. There is simply too much dissatisfaction with Washington and with our political system for this not to happen.

With the overall fiscal health of the national arguably more perilous than it was when Ross Perot surprisingly emerged as a third-party candidate in 1992, there is every reason to believe that the dynamics are even more congenial than they were 18 years ago.

Moreover, polling that I have done shows that in excess of 60 percent want a third-party candidate. Trial heats that I conducted shortly before the November election found that 15 to 25 percent now say that they would vote for different third-party candidates, depending on the various match-ups.

Don't expect that a third-party candidate will be one of the usual suspects. More likely, it will be someone who has yet to run for office - a business person who is simply fed up. Groups of both activists and well-heeled contributors around the country are already talking about the possibility, given the disaffection that exists.


Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service

President Obama will confound established expectations about Afghanistan. After the scheduled summer review, he will not only begin a troop drawdown but also confirm the 2014 date for complete withdrawal. This should be no surprise; from health reform to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" to the conclusion of combat operations in Iraq, Obama has shown that he means what he says. But it will be a surprise to those who assume that he will yield to pressures from the Pentagon for more time and buckle to Republican accusations of cutting and running.

Then will come the most surprising development of all: As the presidential campaign intensifies next fall, what the critics call "Obama's war" will work to Obama's advantage. He'll be for ending the conflict - and Republicans will be for an open-ended commitment. Indeed, their hard-liners won't let any plausible GOP nominee do anything else. A clear majority of Americans will stand with the president on Afghanistan - at the very time when they'll finally be sensing and feeling a recovery they can believe in.

A year from now, America will be on its way out of Afghanistan, the economy will be on a path back to prosperity, and Barack Obama will be on the road to a decisive reelection.


Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

The biggest political surprise of 2011 would be if the consensus that marked the lame-duck congressional session of 2010 continued into the new year. Such opportunities exist in education policy, where the inexplicable Republican reluctance to join into what is essentially an administration assault on union orthodoxy could dissipate, leading to more significant progress on topics such as teacher compensation and retention. They exist on energy, where the death of cap-and-trade clears the way for a passel of subsidies and incentives for exploration and innovation. Progress could come in international trade, where the White House and the GOP leadership have edged farther away from the wall-builders who populate the grass roots of both parties.

But even more startling would be passage of the DREAM Act, which could occur only if Republicans decided to confront the demographic freight train headed their way with something more substantive than kinder and gentler language, and if the president decided that this portion of immigration reform deserved more of his time and attention than a quarterly meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The GOP succeeded last year in forcing more stringent parameters on the bill's requirements, but achieving an agreement will probably require even tougher restrictions on legalization for family members. The resulting compromise could attract support from the political center but will also bring howls of outrage from the true believers on both sides of the fight. Which would make compromise on this issue the biggest surprise of all.


White House press secretary to President George W. Bush

I predict the new Congress will do something useful right away: Reverse the ban on good, old-fashioned and ordinary incandescent light bulbs. Since the ban passed in 2007, some - and I'm not naming names - have been stockpiling the old bulbs, picking up a pack every time they pop into a store before the phaseout is complete in 2014.

The new bulbs give off a blue-ish tint that casts living rooms in cold tones, not warm glows, and their high levels of mercury can be harmful if a bulb is broken. The timing of the ban comes just when Americans have had it with Washington meddling in their lives - they draw a line at their lamps.

While sold as a way to create jobs and save consumers money, neither of those claims have come true. In fact, 200 people in Virginia lost their jobs after a major manufacturer of incandescent bulbs closed. Where are the newfangled bulbs made? China, of course.

A bill to repeal the ban was introduced in the House in the fall. After another holiday of blue-ish-looking Christmas lights and trying to read under their so-called environmentally friendly bulbs, Americans will be grateful when the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), flips a switch to reverse the ban.


Democratic strategist; founding leader of the No Labels movement; partner at the public relations firm Porter Novelli

The great political surprise of 2011 may well be the result of the great political surprise of 2010: a suspension - if only for this pre-presidential campaign year - of the hyper-partisanship that gridlocked Congress. The outbreak of bipartisan problem-solving during the anything-but-lame post-election session caught most of the country off guard. (And for once it was a pleasant surprise.)

If we're to experience real progress in 2011, dealing with crushing issues such as unemployment, deficit reduction, energy and the environment, and our role moving forward in Afghanistan will require an intentional commitment by the administration and by both parties in Congress to serve the interests of our nation rather than the daily political score card.

The best opportunity for comity and accomplishment will stem from adult conversations on how to make real progress stanching the flow of red ink and reducing historic deficits.

Americans were certainly surprised in December by politicians working together to move the country forward. Let's hope the positive reactions they got from their constituents make our leaders want to do it again.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company