The Political Winners of 2011

Matt Mackowiak

12/30/2011 12:01:00 AM - Matt Mackowiak

The intensity of the news cycle has produced more news coverage but less analysis of trends. Fortunately, the end of the calendar year provides both a calm period of time and the necessary reflective mood to enable one to take stock of what occurred over the past year.

The best way to predict the future is to analyze the past. So as we head into 2012, we should first examine who had the best year in politics in 2011.

My suggested winners are:

- Gov. Chris Christie. No figure in American politics has captured the imagination like the New Jersey Republican. Inheriting a budget disaster in 2009, Christie has turned New Jersey upside down with bluntness, leadership, honesty and guts. He was courted to run for president by some of the heaviest hitters in politics and finance but passed, not because he did not think he could win, but because he did not think he was ready. His endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney provided a major boost for Romney's campaign, and his criticisms of President Barack Obama's leadership have had the greatest resonance of any previously made by a Republican. He must now delicately balance the call of national politics with his own state's challenges and his re-election bid in a blue state in 2013.

- Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A former (controversial) Cabinet secretary and immediate past attorney general of New York, the Democrat was elected by a landslide to the same office his father famously held. In the process, after a rare political comeback, Cuomo has become a powerful governor, following a string of failures that preceded him in that office. Cuomo made national news when he passed landmark same-sex marriage legislation in June, causing the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza to write a piece titled "Andrew Cuomo: 2016 Frontrunner?" Cuomo, now proposing major tax reform (including increases for the wealthy), raised $20 million for his 2010 election, and the media and financial power of New York cannot be overstated for national politics.

- Gov. Bobby Jindal. This is one guy to watch. Not only is the Louisiana Republican the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history, he won election to a second term as governor of Louisiana by "the highest victory percentage for any candidate since the state instituted its so-called 'jungle primary' in 1978," per the Washington Post's Cillizza. Indeed, he won every parish, 64 of them. His resume is unparalleled in modern American politics: Brown University graduate, Rhodes scholar, consultant at McKinsey and Co., secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (appointed at 25 years old), executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, president of the University of Louisiana System, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and a Member of Congress. He is only 40 years old, and although he endorsed his friend and neighbor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for president in 2012, he is a very likely (and attractive) candidate for national office in 2016 or 2020.

- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. While conservatives may feel that the Obama administration accomplishments on foreign policy are both reflective of continuing Bush-era policies and overblown, Clinton has emerged as a power player in the Obama Cabinet and on the world stage. Gallup's December 2010 nationwide poll found that Clinton was the most admired woman in America, ahead of Sarah Palin, Oprah Winfrey, first lady Michelle Obama, Queen Elizabeth and Angelina Jolie. When Clinton aired the infamous "3 a.m. Phone Call" ad in her 2008 campaign against Obama, she could never have imagined that she would be answering the phone herself from Foggy Bottom. Clinton has delicately handled crises in Libya, Egypt, North Korea, Tunisia, Syria, Burma and other hot spots around the world over the past year. Should she choose to run, she will be the frontrunner in 2016 on the Democratic side.

- Rep. Paul Ryan. Big ideas are rare in today's world of demagoguery. The House Budget chairman has lived up to the example of the late Jack Kemp, his mentor, in taking on big issues, providing intellectual leadership and displaying courage, all while maintaining a cheery disposition. The Wisconsin Republican united the GOP conference behind his 2011 budget in February, only to see Senate Democrats fail to produce one of their own. His reward? Have national television ads run against him claiming he would push grandmothers over a cliff. Before the year ended, Ryan teamed up with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to offer a bipartisan plan to reform Medicare, which Washington Post blogger Jen Rubin called "an extraordinary political and policy breakthrough." Ryan chose to seek re-election to the House and wait for the chance to wield the gavel as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2013, where he may finally achieve his dream of major tax reform. He will be a top choice for vice president.