Worst Year in Washington

Published on December 13, 2013

All year long, I pick the winners of the Worst Week in Washington prize — those politicians, bureaucrats, sports stars, business leaders and other inhabitants of Planet Beltway who stand out for all the wrong reasons. During 2013, the honorees have ranged from the president to the president’s dog, from meteorologists to comedians, from Supreme Court justices to NFL head coaches (well, mainly one NFL head coach).

Winning the Worst Week in Washington is one thing. To win the Worst Year in Washington, you need to be very good at being very bad, or have really bad luck. Previous Worst Year winners have included then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (remember him?), the tea party movement (always a contender) and Congress (yes, all of it).

This past year offered plenty of candidates, but who is most deserving of this least desirable recognition? (Hint: He’s still in power but has little of it these days.) I also decide who had a really bad year, merely a bad year, a not-so-good year, a good year and, yes, who had the best year in Washington. Let me know, in the comments section or on Twitter (#worstyear), if you agree.


Squandering the chance to build a legacy

When historians write the story of Barack Obama’s presidency, 2013 will be his lost year. It opened with great promise and closed with equally great disappointment. In a year that could have been about building his legacy, the president was instead reduced to salvaging the signature accomplishment of his first term.

The chasm between what was expected and what was delivered was evident in the precipitous drop in Obama’s approval ratings throughout 2013, all the way down to George-W.-Bush-second-term territory. Dashed expectations sent Democrats up for reelection in 2014 fleeing for cover and comforted Republicans still smarting from their party’s 2012 defeat.

Second-term presidencies are tricky. The pace of modern politics and the desire of journalists (scourges!) to always look ahead to the next campaign put a reelected incumbent in a race against irrelevancy from the second he is sworn in again. Scandals tend to creep in or escalate — Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky — and investigations follow, often drifting far afield. Momentum toward any meaningful achievement fades.

Usually, a president has until the midterm elections of his second term to get big things done; after that, attention moves on to deciding who will next occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But Obama may not have the luxury of even that truncated timeline. The split control in Congress — Democrats in charge in the Senate, a Republican majority in the House — combined with the tea party’s continued demand for conservative purity from its elected officials and the politicization of just about everything makes it hard to imagine that 2014 will afford Obama any chance to move his agenda through Congress. And his addition of John Podesta, a vocal advocate of taking executive action to end-run lawmakers, to the White House staff suggests that the president has effectively given up trying to work with the Hill.

All of which makes what happened — or more accurately, what didn’t happen — in 2013 that much more dire for Obama’s chances of leaving a lasting legacy on his party, Washington and politics more broadly.

Let’s start from the beginning, or a bit earlier. Despite a tenuous economic recovery and an unpopular health-care law, Obama surged to a convincing win in November 2012. The victory gave him a mandate to continue in the vein of his first four years, as well as providing a damning assessment of the GOP’s ability to attract any voters other than white men.

Obama used that momentum to cut a favorable deal with Republicans to avert the “fiscal cliff,” and he was able to unite the country after the horrific murder of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

On Jan. 1, then, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the passage of a broad gun-control measure, an immigration reform package, and a series of bills addressing the country’s debt and spending issues. The reasons none of these things came to be all lead back to Obama.

First came the scandals.

The Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that it had targeted tea party groups’ applications for nonprofit, tax-exempt status and subjected them to heightened scrutiny, giving Republicans a way to rally their base after a dispiriting election.

Edward Snowden’s leaks of scads of classified materials detailing the vastness of the National Security Agency’s spying operation not only put Obama on his heels for months but badly damaged his credibility with U.S. allies such as Germany and Brazil.

Republicans insisted that the Obama administration had covered up information about who knew what and when regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, which left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered high-profile testimony before Congress, and the attack got so politicized that it squashed U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s chances to succeed Clinton at State.

And then there was the Affordable Care Act, the single biggest achievement of the president’s five years in office. The rollout of the federal health insurance exchange, one of the law’s key elements, was a complete failure — even though we didn’t realize it until Republicans reversed course on their own massive political flub and reopened the federal government after a 16-day shutdown. (The GOP’s lack of any coherent strategy may have been the only silver lining in Obama’s year.) On top of that, Obama’s oft-repeated pledge that “if you like your insurance, you can keep it” wasn’t, well, true — Politifact even deemed it the “Lie of the Year.” He later made a public apology.

As if the self-inflicted wounds and scandals everywhere weren’t enough to ensure the demise of Obama’s agenda, Republicans in Washington spent 2013 in a public slap fight over the direction of their party. Even if the president had been able to extricate himself from the problems that cropped up throughout the year, it became abundantly clear early on that there was not one Republican with whom he could negotiate, whether on guns, immigration or anything else.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — he of the fiscal cliff agreement — was loath to associate himself too closely with anything that reeked of bipartisanship as he dealt with a conservative primary challenge back home. (McConnell did ultimately step in and cut the deal that ended the government shutdown, a mercy killing for his side.) Speaker John Boehner couldn’t lead House Republicans anywhere as the tea party wing repeatedly rebelled against him (on the farm bill, Hurricane Sandy relief, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and so on), leaving him speaker in name only.

Add it all up, and you get the least-productive Congress in history (only 55 bills have been passed by both chambers and signed into law this year); the least-popular Congress in history (Nickelback, used-car salesmen and political reporters are all liked more ); and a president most Americans no longer like or, perhaps more important, trust.

Yes, the economy is showing signs of improving. And yes, enrollment on HealthCare.gov is soaring compared with the first few weeks. Those facts provide hope for those who believe that 2014 will be better for Obama.

But 2013 is almost gone and with it the president’s best chance for a lasting legacy. The damage done to Obama’s brand will linger well beyond this calendar year. There are no second chances in presidential tenures. Barack Obama, for wasting a year torpedoing your legacy, you had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.


Republicans, for not changing one bit

If freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, the Republican Party was as free as it has ever been in 2013.

The year began with capitulation to the reelected President Obama on a “fiscal cliff” deal and worked its way toward a government shutdown for which Republicans got most of the blame.

Nine months since the Republican National Committee issued its “autopsy” of the GOP in March — concluding that it needs to do better among female, minority and gay voters — the party is still pretty dead to those groups.

A majority of House Republicans voted against providing relief funds to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Ditto the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Immigration reform made it through the Senate but died — or at least appears to be on death’s doorstep — in the House.

It tells you everything you need to know about Republicans that the defining moment of their year was the 21-hour filibuster by Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) against Obama’s health-care law. Yes, the base ate it up, but Cruz’s talkathon didn’t — surprise, surprise — defund Obamacare. And the 2012 elections proved that winning the Republican base isn’t enough, or close to enough, to elect a GOP president or even governor. (See:Cuccinelli, Ken .)

The one encouraging sign from 2013? Speaker John Boehner’s rebuke of tea party groups as they opposed the bipartisan budget deal the House passed Thursday. But much as the president, Republicans will look back on 2013 as a lost year: Plenty of missed opportunities to tailor their agenda to where voters are rather than where the party’s base thinks they should be.


Robert McDonnell, for torpedoing your career

This was the year Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) was supposed to take his victory lap, touting his sky-high approval ratings in a swing state as evidence that he had a future in GOP presidential politics.

Instead, the idea that McDonnell had any political future became a punch line.

It all began in the spring, when The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman and Laura Vozzella reported that McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, had accepted a gift of $15,000 in catering for their daughter’s wedding, courtesy of a Virginia businessman named Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

That was the tip of a really big iceberg for McDonnell. The relationship between Williams — who serves as the chief executive of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that manufactures dietary supplements and other products — and the governor’s family runs deep.

Turns out that Williams cut a $70,000 check to a company that McDonnell and his sister owned. And a $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell, along with $15,000 worth of clothes for her. And a $10,000 check for the engagement of another of McDonnell’s daughters. And a $6,500 Rolex watch Maureen asked Williams to buy for her husband.

The relationship went both ways. Maureen McDonnell traveled to Florida in the summer of 2011 to speak at a conference for potential investors in an anti-inflammatory drug, Anatabloc, that Star Scientific produces. The kickoff party for the drug was held at the governor’s mansion about three months later.

In July, Gov. McDonnell said he was “deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens.” He returned more than $120,000 in loans and gifts from Williams.

But it was too little, way too late. Buh-bye, political career.


Robert Griffin III, for his sophomore slump

Oh, Bob.

Maybe we expected too much out of you. After all, you’re only 23 years old. You have balky knees. Your defense is giving up more than 30 points a game.

But, but . . . what about 2012? The Redskins were NFC East champions thanks in large part to your legs, arm and leadership. And let’s be honest, if you hadn’t hurt your knee in that playoff game, the sports world might be talking about Robert Griffin III the way they gush about Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.

They aren’t, though. They did talk about whether you should be the starter in Week 1 of the season, given your knee surgery and all. But you and your dad were insistent — and who were Mike and Kyle Shanahan to disagree? The head coach and the offensive coordinator? Wait, they were? All right, moving on — sort of like Dan Snyder when he fired the Shanahans. Wait, that hasn’t happened yet? Oh, it will.

Let’s be honest: You shouldn’t have been out there this fall. You looked like, well, me scrambling around. When you threw the ball, things weren’t much better. By the time you rounded into form, the season was already lost: 3-10 is Jacksonville Jaguars bad.

Forget what happened on the field for a second. You spent more time defending your dad — especially after he popped up in the locker room after the Skins lost to the 49ers — than you did leading the team on game-winning drives. Now you’re sitting on the bench for the rest of the season. And some guy named Cousins is playing instead!

As if all that weren’t bad enough — and it is — there’s a growing perception that you’re a diva who doesn’t like hearing bad news.

Sophomore slump? Let’s hope so, since the Redskins gave up all their first-round draft picks until 2050 or so just to get you.


John Kerry, for taking big risks that paid off

John Kerry spent the vast majority of his 70 years waiting to be secretary of state. That lifetime of preparation showed once the Senate confirmed him as the nation’s top diplomat at the end of January.

Replacing the perpetually risk-averse Hillary Rodham Clinton in the job, Kerry, without the constraints of a prospective political campaign looming, went all in. Repeatedly.

Take Syria. After President Obama boxed himself in by drawing a “red line” on President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Kerry stepped in — perhaps accidentally — to suggest that a U.S. military strike could be averted if Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons. Though Kerry had previously advocated for a more forceful U.S. role in Syria — and seemed left hung out to dry when Obama took a plan for strikes to Congress — he emerged with a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.

Then take Iran. The country’s nuclear program has long been a thorn in presidential sides. Enter Kerry, who played a critical role in loosening sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to freeze its nuclear activities.

And of course there’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kerry has traveled to the Mideast nine times since becoming secretary of state, showing how big a priority it is to him to negotiate a peace deal between the longtime enemies. The two sides began talking again in July, although Kerry’s optimism about a two-state solution could be more aspirational than realistic.

Each of these successes is tenuous, and the stalled talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to keep foreign troops in the country beyond 2014 remain a big concern. Yet, it’s hard to imagine an American secretary of state having a better first year than Kerry’s had in 2013. And that’s encouraging, because Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Mideast peace will still be on his to-do list in 2014.


Chris Christie, for winning reelection and plenty of 2016 hype

In January, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was beating back the notion that, in accepting President Obama’s help after Hurricane Sandy, he had aided and abetted the Democrat’s reelection the previous fall. Conservatives viewed those pictures of him touring storm-ravaged areas with Obama as evidence of his apostasy.

Now, in December, Christie is sitting atop the Republican presidential field as the jockeying for 2016 begins.

That’s a pretty good year.

Christie’s 2013 actually got off to a great start in late 2012, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced that he would not challenge Christie and would instead focus on running for the Senate. With Booker out of the picture, the governor’s reelection became much more likely, particularly after Democrats settled on a state senator named Barbara Buono (who?) as their standard-bearer.

Sensing opportunity, Christie and his political team set out to not just win but win big. And they did. Not only did Christie become the first Republican in more than two decades to capture more than 50 percent of the statewide vote in New Jersey, but he also won female voters by 15 points, claimed a majority of the Hispanic vote and took one in five African American votes.

Before November was out, Christie was elected to chair the Republican Governors Association, a perch that will allow him to attract major donors who finance presidential bids.

The only problem for Christie in 2013? It wasn’t 2015.

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