The year 2017 is now in the books. And if 2016 was an unprecedented year in American electoral history, 2017 was definitely an unprecedented year in American governmental history.
Much of the reason for that, as in 2016, was one man: Donald Trump. But plenty of new ground was broken in other arenas, as well. Below I run through the year that was by naming some winners and losers.
Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR.
The year 2016 was supposed to be the big breakthrough for women in politics. Then Hillary Clinton lost. But 2017 has brought significant progress on several fronts. It began with the record-setting Women’s March on Washington and ended with the #MeToo movement taking down powerful men accused of sexual misconduct in business, Hollywood and increasingly in politics. The combined message: Women are stronger when they are unified, and they are increasingly unified.
Looking ahead, a number of women have asserted themselves as leading contenders for the 2020 presidential race, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — all three who rank in my top five potential 2020 Democratic nominees. And a record number of women have filed to run for office in 2018.
Democrats’ 2018 hopes
The first midterm election under a new president is a historically tough one. But Republicans had some dunes guarding against a 2018 wave — specifically, a reasonably big House majority and friendly map, and a slate of Senate races that gave Democrats precious few opportunities to win seats.
Well, 2017 showed us those dunes might not be high enough. Democrats routinely performed better in 2017 special elections than they did in the 2016 election — often by double digits. They did very well in November in the few states that actually had big races (most notably Virginia). Polls show them with a seldom-seen double-digit lead on the generic ballot. They picked off a Senate seat in ruby-red Alabama (with some help from Roy Moore). And that win — combined with other machinations — has given them the opportunity they need to win back the Senate next year.
Suddenly, it looks as though the majorities in both chambers are very much in play, with analyst David Wasserman now giving Democrats the edge in the battle for the House. A lot can change in a year, but if the election were held today, you’ve got to think Democrats might take both chambers in one fell swoop.
Conservative judicial activists
It may not be the most-talked-about aspect of Trump’s first year in office, but it’s arguably the biggest payoff for Republicans who held their nose and supported him (and have continued to hold their nose during his presidency). Trump got Neil M. Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court in April, restoring its nominal 5-4 conservative majority after Antonin Scalia’s death, and now Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate set a record for the number of appeals court judges confirmed. Oh, and there are still three years left in which a vacancy on the Supreme Court’s left flank could tilt the court more clearly toward the right.
The fight against ISIS
This is perhaps the second biggest undersold success of Trump’s first year, behind judges. While there was certainly progress on defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) late in the Obama administration, it has accelerated in Trump’s first year. In December, Iraq declared complete victory in pushing the Islamic State out of its country, of which it once controlled about one-third. Overall, the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq seems to have come to an end, though the battle — particularly in Syria — doesn’t appear to be over. Even Trump’s critics acknowledge that the policy toward this conflict in the Middle East has been a large-scale success thus far.
Its left-leaning prime-time hosts may not agree with Trump politically, but he has sure been good for business. No cable network grew more in 2017, according to TV Newser, and MSNBC edged CNN for the first time in the key demographic in prime time: viewers ages 18 to 49. It has also become the third most-watched basic cable network in prime time. Fox News remains the reigning champion overall, but MSNBC is clearly ascendant.
This one got lost in the big news day that was Election Day 2017, and it’s unusual that we put state legislators on this kind of list — much less ones who haven’t even taken office yet. But Hurst is different. He decided to run for office as a Democrat after his girlfriend, Alison Parker, a fellow broadcast journalist at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, was shot and killed live on the air in 2015. And this November, he unseated a Republican incumbent in one of many surprise results for the Virginia House of Delegates.
I was asked Friday during my weekly live chat what the best story in politics in 2017 was, and this was the first thing that came to mind.
The transgender community
If women took a big step forward politically in 2017, the transgender community took a leap forward. On Election Day alone, it elected the first openly transgender person to a state legislature (having defeated a staunchly anti-gay incumbent), the first openly transgender person to a city council in a major American city, and the first openly transgender person in Pennsylvania history. At a time when many state and local governments are fighting battles over “bathroom bills,” this kind of political progress shouldn’t escape notice.
Despite his vast wealth, Trump ran an unmistakably populist campaign. He has regularly said he would like to raise taxes on the wealthy. Well that’s ... not what happened. The tax plan recently passed by Congress includes largely across-the-board tax cuts, but multiple analyses show the wealthy and corporations would benefit the most, and the individual tax cuts expire in 10 years, leaving the middle class actually paying more in taxes than it does currently. (The corporate tax cuts don’t expire.)
Trump himself now seems to recognize that the middle class wasn’t the chief beneficiary of the bill, saying after the bill’s passage that corporate tax cuts were “probably the biggest factor in this plan.” He also reportedly told the wealthy people at Mar-a-Lago over Christmas, “You all just got a lot richer.” Combine all of this with the huge amount of deregulation that has occurred over the past 11 months, and it’s clear the Trump presidency has been especially good for the well-heeled.
Whatever you think of Trump as president, there is no disputing the fact that he doesn’t tell the truth — a lot. Trump has told more than 1,000 falsehoods, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, with many of them being rather easily proved wrong and/or frequently repeated. Plenty of people have leaned hard on the media to call what Trump is doing lying; as I’ve written, the alternative is that he doesn’t grasp the concept of basic truth. Neither is a good thing.
Trump’s presidency so far has been terrible for the concept of objective truth, and he’s often sold his base on an alternate reality that simply doesn’t exist. There have always been competing political realities in America depending on which side you support, of course. But Trump, whose political rise began with the discredited and specious birther conspiracy, has exacerbated this divide in unprecedented ways.
The stability of the American political system
The decline to the truth plays into this, but Trump has also shaken up American politics by arguing that many institutions (read: the ones that run afoul of him) are corrupt and/or inherently biased. Among those on the receiving end of Trump’s deep-state conspiracy-mongering are the media, the judiciary, the intelligence community and law enforcement such as the FBI. These efforts have formed a defining trend of Trump’s presidency, with the message behind all of it being: I’m the only one you can trust, and anyone who runs afoul of me is bad and will be undermined.
However deserved any of these attacks might be — and to be sure, none of these institutions are even close to flawless — the combined effect is to undermine trust in the institutions that form the glue of the American political system. Of course, that seems to be what a lot of Americans are craving right now.
Heading into 2017, Flynn was a retired general who had played a major role in installing Trump as president. In fact, when it came to the notoriously fickle Trump, nobody on his team seemed to command such loyalty or personal affection.
Today, Flynn has pleaded guilty to a crime that could put him in jail for up to six months: lying to federal investigators. He also found his work on behalf of the Turkish government and payments he took from Russian sources scrutinized. And the legal team for the president who once adored Flynn is preparing to go after his credibility if he makes accusations after Trump. What’s even worse for Flynn is that nothing good awaits in 2018 — especially if he does implicate Trump or his campaign in any wrongdoing. Suddenly, he’ll have become a central figure in a major White House scandal.
Trump's GOP critics
Almost without fail, every Republican who dared to criticize or run afoul of Trump found themselves paying for it with the Republican base. Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.). Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.). Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Bob Corker (Tenn.). All of them became remarkably unpopular with fellow Republicans after failing to toe the Trump line. Now Corker and Flake are both retiring; in fact they’re the only two GOP senators who are doing so.
Each of them serve as a cautionary tale that whatever they might think of Trump, alienating him can be costly. And as long as that’s the case, Republican lawmakers will feel plenty of pressure to fall in line and support Trump. It’s his last vestige of political capital.
Moore’s implosion in the Alabama special election will long be remembered as a hugely embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party’s history — on-par with Martha Coakley losing that 2010 special election in Massachusetts. While Coakley (D) managed to lose arguably the bluest state in the country, Moore lost one of the reddest — a state in which Democrats haven’t had a pulse for years. And he did it while being accused of sexual misconduct and otherwise pursuing teenage girls when he was in his 30s. There were even stories about how he got banned from the Gadsden mall for this kind of thing — a revelation that basically wrote late-night jokes for TV comedians.
Moore’s shifting denials, dog whistles and motley cast of campaign surrogates completed the picture of a remarkably terrible candidate and campaign. And this week’s drama over Moore trying to overturn his 1.6-point loss really filled out the picture of a politician whose time has long passed and basically nobody in the national GOP will miss.
Even when you consider the fact that being Trump’s lawyer might be the worst job in Washington, Trump’s lawyers had a bad 2017. They had run-ins with trolls, made laughable statements on cable TV, criticized White House staff, were caught gossiping at a Washington restaurant within earshot of a New York Times reporter, confirmed things they probably shouldn’t have and most recently took the fall for a highly questionable tweet from Trump’s Twitter account.
Trump had better hope they’re better at their jobs than all of this suggests.
The Democratic senator from Minnesota is set to officially leave office in the coming days, after tendering his resignation in the face of multiple sexual harassment allegations. Franken tried to strike a delicate balance between apologizing to his female accusers but also disputing their accounts. But the growing volume of accusations soon led to a flood of Franken’s Democratic colleagues calling for him to resign, and he obliged.
Even in announcing it, though, you could tell he didn’t really think the punishment fit whatever he believed he had actually done. In the end, he became only the third senator in 22 years to resign in disgrace. And for a guy who began the year as a dark-horse 2020 Democratic candidate for president, it was really a rather swift and shocking fall from grace.
Trump’s foreign policy wasn't quite as isolationist as some might have imagined based on his campaign rhetoric — he notably launched airstrikes against the Syrian government and expanded the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan — but he largely made good on his promises to pull the United States back from international agreements. He pulled out of the Paris climate accord, withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pressed NATO members to pay up, sometimes played hardball with China and most recently recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which drew a large-scale rebuke from United Nations member countries.
Many of these decisions were highly controversial, but Trump’s brand of nationalism clearly shone through in his foreign policy.