A Political Scorecard for 2003


By Richard S. Dunham Somehow, it seems appropriate that the 40th anniversary reissue of the movie farce, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is premiering as the curtain closes on 2003. But instead of Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, and the Three Stooges, our updated cast includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hillary Clinton, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Mohammar Gaddafi. With stars like that, it's mighty hard to pick the biggest winners and losers in this real-life mad, mad world of 2003. But here's a weary columnist's best shot:

WINNERS

Arnold Schwarzenegger The Terminator couldn't have written a better script: Hollywood action hero comes to the rescue of the debt-mired Golden State. Immigrant makes good. Political Establishment gets poked in the eye. Press scandalmongers get whacked over the head.

Indeed, Schwarzenegger may be a leading man in a formula for GOP success in the 21st century: fiscal conservatism and tax cuts combined with social tolerance and clean-green environmentalism. Now all he has to do is turn the state's economy around, charm the Democratic legislature, and keep the voters from tiring of his act.

Hillary Clinton Just three years into her first term, the junior senator from New York has become the hottest commodity in Democratic politics. She's leading the Democratic Presidential field by a mile -- only she isn't running...at least this time...at least for now. In the meantime, she wrote the No. 1 political best-seller of the year, outdistancing the populist conservative TV talker Bill O'Reilly and liberal comic/commentator Al Franken. Now everyone is waiting for the titanic showdown between Hillary and Bush, Jeb that is, in the 2008 Presidential contest.

Tom DeLay If the Terminator had a great year, so did the Exterminator. Yes, the former Texas bug-killer-turned-House-Majority-Leader did his best to snuff out a half-dozen congressional colleagues from Texas for the simple sin of being Democrats. DeLay masterminded the most effective partisan gerrymander of all time -- at least if appeals courts uphold his modern art.

He also bent House rules to win every key showdown of the year (a 15-minute vote lasted more than three hours, for example). In the end, DeLay delivered tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit, and much, much more. Dems may hate him, but they have to respect his effectiveness. He gets the job done.

Paul Wolfowitz The Deputy Defense Secretary was the brains behind the drive to oust Saddam, the doctrine of preemptive war, and the plan to deprive America's erstwhile allies of lucrative post-war contracts in Iraq. Next to George W. Bush, he may be the American most despised abroad, particularly in Western Europe.

But he got his man. And at home, he's a power to be reckoned with. The big question: Will he succeed Pentagon boss Don Rumsfeld in a second Bush term?

Halliburton When I was growing up in Philadelphia, one of my favorite political quotes came from Mayor Frank Rizzo. Having just appointed his brother Joe to be the city's fire commissioner, hizzoner defended his action by saying, "It's not nepotism. He's my brother."

I get the same feeling when I think of Dick Cheney's response to the wealth of no-bid contracts being given to the company he used to run. In effect, the Veep's response is: "It's not nepotism. They're the only company qualified to do the job." That may be true. But it sure looks bad.

Halliburton isn't the only business interest to do well in '03. The list is long and distinguished: drug companies, insurance companies, health-care companies, carmakers, air and water polluters, etc. With Republicans in charge of Congress and the executive branch, it's a flush time to be a corporate contributor.

Howard Dean At the beginning of 2003, the former Vermont governor was "Howard Who?" Then he became "Howard, How?" Then it was "Howard Now!" By spring 2004, it'll be clear if the current Democratic front-runner makes the dean's list or flunks out after finals.

LOSERS

The Sad Sack Senators Who Thought They Would be President Saddam is too easy a pick to lead this category, so instead, how about those Senate heavyweights who have fared so poorly in the Presidential campaign? Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, has been a dud. His hawkish New Democratic rhetoric has none of Bill Clinton's optimism and charm. And ex-running mate Al Gore abandoned Lieberman, endorsing Dean without even telling him.

And Lieberman isn't the only Senate loser in 2003: His colleague John Kerry of Massachusetts and ex-colleague Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois are further evidence that senators just don't get elected President. The last one was John F. Kennedy in 1960. John Edwards of North Carolina still has a shot at nabbing some delegates in the primaries, but he, too, remains a very long shot.

Colin Powell The Secretary of State, revered by much of the press and many Americans, has been overshadowed all year by Pentagon hawks and Administration neoconservatives. His reputation for unquestioned integrity has taken a hit for his pre-war presentation to the U.N., which critics now say was rife with inaccuracies and/or misinformation from Administration sources.

Instead of building a true multinational coalition, like the one he helped to unite in the 1991 Gulf War, ex-General Powell has been working the phones with allies including Poland, the Solomon Islands, and Tonga. It has been a long year.

Condoleeza Rice Bush's National Security Adviser is smart, charming, witty, and powerful. She also took a lot of heat in '03, however, for failing to put together a coherent plan for post-war Iraq. Out of nowhere, anonymous critics began to question her organizational skills and her ability to survive the cutthroat internal politics of any White House -- even the highly disciplined Bush Administration.

And she never seemed to quite get what was going on all around her. The big question: Will her devoted friend, the President, name her to replace Powell when the Secretary of State decides to leave Foggy Bottom?

Gray Davis California's hapless chief executive became the first big-state governor ever to get recalled. Why did Golden State voters hate him so much? Let us count the ways. He was cold, calculating, vicious, and ineffective. And that's what his friends were saying. And that hair. A hard-core Democrat, he managed to lose power in what has become one of the most Democratic states in the nation. That's quite an accomplishment.

Strom Thurmond The South Carolina political legend died in June at the age of 100, but his legacy continued to take a beating. He left office following Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's musings that reminded everyone of Thurmond's rabid segregationist past. Then the year ended with the public acknowledgment of his 78-year-old mixed-race daughter.

The silence he maintained throughout his life about this offspring only served to reinforce public cynicism about politicians: That they say one thing in public and do something else in private. Was Thurmond a committed segregationist or an ambitious pol who feigned racial hatred just to get ahead? Either way, it doesn't present the late senator in a favorable light.

Rush Limbaugh The king of conservative talk radio has been under a lot of strain lately, but Philadelphia Eagles football fans may ask him to be the grand marshal of their Super Bowl parade, if the team gets that far. That's because Limbaugh's racially tinged comments on ESPN questioning the skills of Philadelphia superstar quarterback Donovan McNabb helped turn the team around. After Rush's rant, D'Iggles (as they're known in Philly) won nine games in a row.

Rush got canned. Then he went into drug rehab. Then he came under investigation for possible prescription abuse. Now he's battling prosecutors he says are running amok. Sounds like lasagna-spined liberalism.

Old Europe It's impossible to finish a list of 2003 winners and losers without at least one international honoree. So we'll include the leaders of the fading glory that Rumsfeld dubbed "Old Europe." French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhardt Schr?der fervently opposed President Bush's war with Iraq. Now, with Saddam captured and the Pentagon doling out contracts to the Brits and the Spaniards, the powers of Western Europe are on the outside looking in. But as the euro soars and the dollar drops, could Old Europe get the last laugh?

George Bush? He gets a pass this year. It has been a roller-coaster year for the President. He has had great successes -- the fall of Baghdad, the eventual capture of Saddam, the economy's seeming rebound. And he has had embarrassing failures -- premature celebration of victory in Iraq, the chaos of the immediate post-war period, record deficits, and international disdain.

American voters will render their verdict on Bush next November. At that point, he'll either be the biggest winner of 2003-04 or the biggest loser. In either event, here's to a good year ahead for everyone. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online


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