Monday, September 5, 2011

A Fascinating Decade in Politics, An Awful Labor Day, 9/11 Remembered

The Most Interesting Political Stories of the Decade
The period of time surrounding Labor Day is historically a slow period for political news and this year has been no different.  With Congress in recess and most of the American public tuned out, we are largely taking a break from budget battles and election campaigns that are sure to heat back up in the coming weeks.  So, I thought I'd take a step back and recall what I consider to be the most interesting political stories of the past decade.  For consideration, my time window is from election day 2000 to election day 2010, as historical a period in American politics as I can recall.  In reverse order, here are my favorite stories:

(5) TARP is Signed Into Law, October 3, 2008
This story is fascinating on many levels.  The economics of sub-prime mortgages and the subsequent financial crisis are well documented.  But what amazes me is the political juxtaposition that all of this caused.  A Republican President calling for massive government intervention in the economy.  A Democratic Congress delivering a a corporate welfare bill with mostly Democratic votes.  Key Republican votes bought-off with earmarks and set-asides.  They say sausage-making is ugly, and this necessary (and ultimately not very costly) intervention in the economy had all kinds of twists and turns that caused it almost not to happen.  Passing unpopular legislation in any time is tough.  Passing it heading into a Presidential election is almost unheard of.  That it did is nothing short of a bi-partisan miracle.

(4) Iraq War Resolution Enacted, October 16, 2003
The Iraq war would become issue number one by liberal critics for President George W. Bush's foreign policy.  It seems in retrospect, somewhat absurd to get attacked by terrorists in Afghanistan and attack an unrelated dictator in Iraq, where Al Qaeda didn't even have a presence prior to our invasion.  But let's face it, Hussein was a known enemy with no shortage of reasons not to like.  Perhaps it is for this reason, or perhaps the fact that a congressional election was a few weeks away and nobody wanted to run as a dove, but the fact that the likes of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry voted for the war resolution, a position that they would forever try to explain away, speaks volumes of the political climate of the time.

(3) Lisa Murkowski Elected to the Senate as a Write-In, November 2, 2010
Does an Alaskan Senate election really warrant being halfway up this Top 5 list?  You bet it does.  Look, I realize that this was more a story for political junkies than it was a national news item, but as a purely political story (remember, these are the top 5 political stories), it doesn't get any better than this.  After losing a close primary to Tea Party darling Joe Miller, incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski decided to run for re-election as a write-in candidate.  Ultimately, she won by over 4% with her 39% trumping Miller's 35% and Democrat Scott McAdams 23%.  Including Murkowski, there have been exactly two successful write-in candidates in Senate history; the only other time this has happened was in 1954 when South Carolina elected Strom Thurmond by write-in.  And in Thurmond's case, he had the support of the local party (the popular incumbent had died shortly before the election, wheeas Murkowski was strictly an independent operator.  And it was a bold signal that even in conservative Alaska, moderates could still beat Tea Party candidates.

(2) Barack Obama Elected President, November 4, 2008
Forget what you think of his Presidency for a second (and a majority of you disapprove, if I'm reading the polls correctly) and focus on how incredible the moment was.  I'm a close political follower, but if you'd asked me in 2003 who Barack Obama was, I wouldn't have known.  I do remember seeing then Senate Candidate Barack Obama's speech before the 2004 DNC and being awed.  But if you had told me then that a man who's highest political office at the time was the Illinois State Senate, a man who was black, a man who had a Muslim name and a man who had attended a radical black church in Chicago (or at least been a member, who knows how often he really went, but I digress) would not only be elected President but win Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana in doing so, I'd have dismissed you as a real hack.  But one incredible night in 2008, it all happened.  The arc of American politics and civil rights will never be the same, regardless of what happens in 2012.

(1) The Florida Recount, November-December, 2000
There will never be a political story of this magnitude in our lifetime.  This had ALL the elements.  A stunningly close deciding vote tally in Florida (537 votes for Bush by the official results, 154 votes for Bush by the unofficial tally when the recount was halted and somewhere between a Bush win by 493 votes and a Gore win by 170 votes depending on the standard and the counties looked at, according to post-election studies), a national popular vote win for Gore, a drama set up by Gore losing his home state of Tennessee after never campaigning in it, the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader gumming up the works, the butterfly ballot causing thousands of votes to incorrectly be case for Pat Buchanan, a Supreme Court case decided on party lines.  This was Tilden-Hayes without the backdrop of the Civil War.  And whether the "correct" guy won is still a matter of debate among the political class and the American public.  The truth of the matter?  We proved that the margin of error in vote tabulation is greater than 0.009%, the margin of Bush's official win, meaning that it is simply impossible to know who won with any certainty, except by looking at who was sworn into office.  It's a shame that real voting reform hasn't followed.

I promised 5, but I need to do 1 honorable mention, which isn't terribly significant politically, but is fascinating none the less:
John Ashcroft Losses to a Dead Man, November 7, 2000
Before he was the Attorney General that famously signed off on all the controversial homeland security policies of the Bush administration, John Ashcroft was a United States Senator from Missouri.  In 2000, Ashcroft was running for re-election against incumbent Governor Mel Carnahan.  In October, Carnahan was killed in a plane crash, too late to be removed from the ballot and replaced with another Democrat.  Roger Wilson, Carnahan's Lieutenant Governor and now-Governor of Missouri pledged to appoint Carnahan's widow to the seat if Carnahan won (if a dead man wins election to the Senate, the seat is considered vacant and the Governor can make a temporary appointment.)  The vote totals on election night where 51% for Carnahan, 49% for Ashcroft.  Thus, Mel Carnahan became the only dead man in United States history to win a Senate election.  Jean Carnahan went on to the Senate for 2 years and John Ashcroft went on to the AG's office.

Have other great political stories of the past 10 years that I've missed?  Send me your favorites.

A Miserable Labor Day
It's hard to think of a more depressingly ironic piece of news for Labor Day, a day built to celebrate America's blue collar workers to be celebrated with the backdrop of a Bureau of Labor Statistics report Friday that the U.S. economy created zero new jobs in August, the economies worst performance in nearly a year.  Some would argue that is not quite as bad as it sounds, as the private sector was modestly net positive, offset by cuts in governmental jobs.  But it is awful.  Keep in mind that the economy needs to grow by about 200,000 jobs each and every month just to keep up with population growth.  By this measure, since November 2007 (the month before the recession officially began), we are 15.6 million jobs in the hole, that is, there are 6.8 million less jobs and we need job growth of 8.8 million to keep up with population growth.  So, just to get back to where we were in 2007, we'd need job growth of 400,000 jobs per month for six and a half years.  And we aren't close.  The result?  An "official" 9.1% unemployment rate, but a more daunting decline in participation in the workforce not seen since before working women were the norm.

Remembering 9/11
Do you remember what you were doing on September 11, 2001?  Where you were?  What you felt?  I think we all do.  Next Sunday, it will have been 10 years since those awful attack in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.  We have been the right combination of good and lucky to avoid a major attack in the 10 years hence.  We are a more sober, less arrogant America than 10 years ago.  We are more war-weary, more pressed economically and know a whole lot more about radical Islam.  We are more politically divided than ever and our problems are large.  But we are still One America, a feeling that flashed back through our consciousness earlier this year when we learned that Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind killing thousands of our innocent countrymen and women had been killed.  A whole generation will be defined by the events of 9/11, which was really the coming of age moment for the Millennials.  Let's never forget the unity and national pride that brought us together that day.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.  Here's hoping that you are off work and that it is because you get today as a holiday, not because you can't find work.

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