Year in Review: The Political Highs and Lows of 2012

Posted: Dec 31, 2012 10:00 AM

Suddenly, 2013 is upon us.  New year, similar issues, familiar players.  But before we set our sights on the battles and controversies to come, let's cast our gaze backwards to the year that was.  2012 promised to be a politically consequential year, and it lived up to its billing, albeit with generally disappointing outcomes from a conservative perspective.  The following is my personal take on the most significant political peaks and valleys from the past calendar year.  Let's begin with the good stuff:

(3) Mitt Romney selects Paul Ryan as his running mate. Many conservatives viewed Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy with a jaundiced and skeptical eye, expressing concerns over the former governor's myriad policy reversals throughout his career.  Then, of course, there was Romneycare.  Though the Right's eventual coalescence around the Republican nominee was inevitable -- President Obama was on the ballot, after all -- Romney's politically bold, unboring, big-picture decision to tap conservative budget guru Paul Ryan as his Number Two sent a ripple of excitement through the grassroots.  The GOP standard-bearer signaled that he would not shy away from conservative principles, and that he was serious about our nation's building, ruinous debt crisis.  He tackled the "third rail" of Medicare head-on, taking the fight to the Democrats -- and dramatically closing liberals' traditional advantage in the process.  For his part, Ryan gave an electrifying speech at the Republican National Convention, dissecting the president's failures in a clinical and devastating manner.  It sent the Obama campaign and their media protectors into a frenzy of indignant, inaccurate "fact-checking."  Ryan was a fresh, conservative, and welcome addition to the Republican ticket.  It's a shame that his title will remain "House Budget Committee Chairman" rather than "Mr. Vice President."

(2) The Denver debate.  Never has Barack Obama been so publicly and relentlessly rebuked.  Before an audience of 70 million Americans, Mitt Romney systematically dismantled Obama from wire to wire.  Romney was sharp, engaged, respectful, yet unsparing; Obama was dazed, lackluster, and downtrodden.  It was a rout.  Every poll and focus group gave it to the challenger by a mile.  The performance jump-started Romney's campaign, building momentum and traction that had been lacking for months.  It wasn't enough to affect the final result, but it was a game-changer nonetheless.  Historians and political scientists will be talking about that early October night in Colorado for years to come.  As a bonus, Romney's decisive win prompted this immortal outburst:

(1) Scott Walker coasts to victory in the Left's failed recall gambit.  Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ran as a conservative reformer in 2010 and secured a solid victory in a blueish state.  Upon entering office the following year, and with a Republican legislature at his back, he rolled out a sweeping budget reform package to repair the state's finances.  It closed the biannual shortfall without raising taxes.  Much of this was accomplished through a series of controversial measures affecting government sector unions.  Walker's plan required these workers to contribute more to their healthcare costs and something to their pensions.  It allowed state government workers to choose whether or not to pay dues to their unions, and -- most provocatively -- it limited the scope of these unions' collective bargaining privileges.  Walker's proposal set of a firestorm of furious protest, as Leftists descended on the state capitol to oppose the measures.  Despite a prolonged tantrum, threats of violence, and some elected Democrats fleeing the state to obstruct a vote, Walker's reforms passed.  And they worked.  Incensed and undeterred by facts, liberals attempted to remove a conservative state supreme court justice from the bench.  They failed.  They tried to take back the state senate through a series of recall elections.  They failed.  And they spent millions on a high-profile recall effort against the governor himself.  When all was said and done, Wisconsin voters turned out in astonishing numbers to essentially re-elect Walker, who expanded his 2010 victory margin on both a percentage basis and among raw votes.  A conservative reformer took a risk, fought the Left, restored fiscal sanity to his state, and was rewarded by voters: An incredibly important achievement.  Walker's leadership paved the way for additional setbacks for organized labor in states like Indiana, New Jersey and Michigan.  (In case you're curious about why the Left went so ballistic during the recall battle, look no further than this evidence).

And now, regrettably, the lows:

(3) The death of Andrew Breitbart.  Andrew was a tireless warrior, a political gadfly, a provocateur extraordinaire, and a friend.  No one I've known enjoyed his life and his place in the American political constellation more.  A heart attack claimed his life at the tragically premature age of 43.  He left behind a lovely wife and four young children.  The Right lost a street brawler who knew the Left's agitation inside and out; he derived immense pleasure from poking and prodding them, often driving members of the professional Left to the brink of madness.  Perhaps Andrew's finest moment was the coincidental hijacking of former Congressman Anthony Weiner's press conference, an exclamation point on Team Breitbart's successful campaign to send a liberal folk hero into early retirement.  Rest in Peace, Andrew:


(2) The US Supreme Court Upholds Obamacare.  The unaffordable, liberty-depriving, unworkable, unpopular monstrosity survived by the thinnest of margins. By a vote of 5-4, SCOTUS affirmed the "Affordable Care Act," with Chief Justice Roberts joining the Court's four liberals to deliver the blow.  The dissenting justices, including moderate Anthony Kennedy, were prepared to toss out the entire law.  Circumstantial evidence and various reports indicate that Roberts switched his vote very late in the process, suggesting that he may have been impacted by the Left's incessant braying about the high court's "reputational damage" should the law be struck down.  Adding insult to injury were the initial false reports that the law's tent-pole individual mandate had been struck down.  Not so.  Some conservatives have argued that certain elements of the decision established encouraging precedents -- a claim that holds some water, but elides the profoundly troubling implications of the broader decision.  Here's a snippet of what I wrote at the time:

Roberts could have struck a decisive and lasting blow for liberty by invalidating a mammoth government intrusion into a core element of American life -- not some day, but here and now. He didn't. The future is uncertain, to say the least, and any carefully-laid "long game" designs could be unhappily distrupted by one or more unforeseen events. Furthermore, I do appreciate some of the positive implications of the Court's 7-2 ruling against Obamacare's Medicaid expansion (one of which will make the law easier to repeal via reconciliation due to its even greater contribution to deficits). I also see how the Commerce Clause slap-down is a theoretical win, and that future liberty encroachments via the taxing power will be significantly harder to sell to a tax-averse public. But liberals again and again prove themselves ever willing to shift rationales to achieve desired ends. In short, I don't think any newly-"established" constraints on governmental action will actually constrain future liberal Congresses or presidents in practice; they'll do what they please, and find a way to justify it. Maybe the Court will hold them at bay. Or maybe the Court will be liberal by that point and will happily carry water for fellow statists. Or maybe another conservative justice will rule with the liberals in order to move the ball forward in the same hypothetical, quixotic "long game" that never seems to be won. Those are the reasons why, despite the persuasiveness and optimism of others' rationale, I still cannot bring myself to chalk up yesterday's ruling as a victory.  

In any case, the Supremes' 5-4 call made it clear that the only way to undo Obamacare would be through the political process, which brings us to the top item on this list...

(1) President Obama is re-elected.  A nightmare for conservatives of all stripes.  Despite diminished margins in every swing state, a lower aggregate vote total, and fewer electoral tallies, Barack H. Obama won a second term in the Oval Office.  Though it was significantly closer than his 2008 triumph, Obama's victory wasn't much of a nail-biter on election night.  He swept the "big three" battlegrounds of Virginia, Florida and Ohio, only losing Indiana and North Carolina from his previous win column.  In spite of everything -- historically persistent high unemployment, an explosion of the national debt, a series of deeply unpopular legislative items, a conga line of broken promises, two lethal scandals and extremely soft approval numbers -- he won.  And despite their jaw-dropping fiduciary negligence, Senate Democrats managed to increase their majority. On November 7, I assessed the damage, and came to this conclusion:

Mitt Romney, for all of his faults, ran an aggressive, well-funded, honorable campaign that (generally) focused on the very profound, very big, very urgent issues of our time. He scored a major debate victory then sprinted toward the finish line, harnessing enthusiasm and momentum along the way. But it wasn't enough. He was defeated by a small, petty, and overwhelmingly negative opponent whose turnout machine swamped all else. The unserious and unseemly drumbeat of birth control, Big Bird, binders, and Blame Bush worked. The "Kill Romney" strategy laid the groundwork for this successful approach. The president offered no meaningful or sweeping vision for a second term, but it didn't matter. What an awful precedent. I fear it says more about the nation than it does about the opportunistic and ruthless Obama campaign. Two core assumptions must be re-evaluated: America the meritocracy, and America the center-Right nation.  

The beat goes on, but I suspect 2012 will be looked upon as a dramatic and lasting setback for the American project.  2013 begins with  a divided government, a tepid economic "recovery," a disenchanted populace, and a Republican Party in utter disarray.  The next 12 months will be fascinating to watch.  Forward Onward.

UPDATE - Feel free to concur with, or dissent from, these two lists.  Are they ordered properly?  Did I miss an obvious milepost or two?  Let the debate and discussion commence in the comments section...and Happy New Year!

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