December is usually a quiet time in politics. Members of Congress leave Washington, and the president is tied down by an endless procession of Christmas parties. Journalists finally do their expenses. But this year is ending with a spasm of news. South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson’s precarious health raises questions about whether the Democrats can control the Senate. Presidential candidates Bill Frist and Evan Bayh have dropped out of the 2008 race while Barack Obama showed signs that he was about to jump in. Just over the horizon in January 2007 is the trial of former Cheney aide Scooter Libby, which promises to disclose lots of long-hidden secrets about the Bush administration. But before that starts, let’s look back at 2006, an exciting political year that started with a bang in February, when Dick Cheney shot his hunting partner, and ended with a firing in November, when George Bush finally removed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Here are five of the year’s best political moments, listed in chronological order:
1. Cheney’s Got a Gun
Dick Cheney has done things his way in his six years as vice president. He’s kept Congress from prying into his business, claimed expanded powers for the executive branch, and repeatedly stiff-armed the press. But there are some Washington customs he hasn’t been able to change. It’s still the case that when you’re the vice president and you shoot a guy, you’ve got to speak up about it. In February, Cheney shot his hunting pal Harry Whittington. Despite being surrounded by the world’s best communications equipment, Cheney didn’t get the word out for nearly a day. When he did, it was to a tiny local Texas paper. The early spin was farcical. The owner of the hunting ranch tried to downplay the mishap, saying the hospitalized victim had “been peppered pretty good,” making his injury sound no worse than a vigorous spa treatment. Some Cheney partisans tried to blame the victim, until the hunters rallied and said it was Cheney’s fault.
“Duck! It’s Dick” read the headline in the New York Daily News. In an unprecedented move, White House spokesman Scott McClellan implicitly criticized Cheney’s handling of the incident. Behind the scenes, a senior Bush administration official called the delay “bone-headed.” Keeping quiet didn’t endanger national security, but it was a symbol of Cheney’s utter disdain for the obligations of his public role. “Never explain. Never apologize,” is how one senior White House official described the ethos in Cheney land.
2. Blogger Power!
Bloggers have successfully hounded politicians from office, but in August, the bloggers claimed their first real political scalp through an election. In Connecticut, political neophyte Ned Lamont beat three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic Senate primary. Big-name bloggers lent their hand in the anti-war crusade against the incumbent. Marcos Moulitsas participated in a Lamont ad and Jane Hamsher flew in to volunteer. Dick Cheney called a rare press conference to tell reporters that the defeat of pro-war, Bush-kissing Lieberman was succor for al-Qaida and proof that the Democratic Party was fundamentally unequipped to fight terrorism.
But then the summer of the blogger was over. Shortly after bloggers had shown their effectiveness in the primary, they were proving their limitations in the general election where Lieberman ran as an Independent. Bloggers could never offer a believable rationale for voting for their candidate beyond his anti-war stance. When they tried to explain why people should vote for Lamont and not just against Joe Lieberman, it sounded like sham boosterism. At a key moment, blogger Hamsher embarrassed Lamont, and shortly before Election Day, Arianna Huffington was publicly criticizing him for his caution. The lesson was clear to any future candidate who wants to become a blogger favorite: The great new force in politics can build candidates up and then abandon them just like the old forces in politics. Lieberman ends the year as an independent who fought off the agents of extremism—and a more powerful political force than he was before the netroots attacked him.
3. George of the Bungle
Virginia Sen. George Allen was once a very careful politician who combined George W. Bush’s easygoing manner and Ronald Reagan’s conservative message. The GOP base loved him and he attracted high-wattage party operatives. Then it all fell spectacularly apart. In August, Allen began a protracted political wipeout of such sustained precision it seemed like he was participating in some kind of contest only he knew about. His race to the bottom began when he was caught on tape singling out an Indian-American operative from his opponent’s campaign, heralding him by the name “macaca” and welcoming him to America. His aides laughably explained that the mysterious but derogatory appellation was somehow a reference to the fellow’s faux-hawk haircut. As Allen launched into ham-fisted denials about his remarks and past use of racial slurs, he was then confronted by the discovery of his Jewish heritage. His first reaction was to complain that asking him about his ancestry was casting an “aspersion” and then days later made puzzling assertions about still eating ham sandwiches and his mother’s great pork chops.
4. Foley: The Final Insult
Every time Republicans thought they had picked themselves up off the canvas, they were walloped by another scandal. What next, they asked? Those who guessed that a member of Congress would be caught seducing young male pages through lewd text messages guessed correctly. Mark Foley immediately resigned, blamed his drinking problem and a predatory priest who molested him when he was younger. But that didn’t spare GOP leadership from having to explain why they missed the warning signs about the six-term congressman’s increasingly odd behavior. The Foley scandal lost the GOP a safe seat in Florida and it may also have been the last straw in a year that was thick with GOP misbehavior. The year 2006 started with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleading guilty and singing to investigators about the GOP lawmakers he wheedled with skyboxes, free meals, and swish golfing junkets. Rep. Bob Ney ultimately pleaded guilty to corruption charges as a result. The taint of scandal torpedoed GOP operative Ralph Reed’s effort to become the lieutenant governor of Georgia and further damaged House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was already fighting an indictment in Texas on campaign finance violations. DeLay ultimately had to drop out of politics. In March, GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham was sentenced to eight years for accepting bribes, and just before the Foley scandal erupted, GOP Pennsylvania Rep. Don Sherwood had to produce a campaign ad apologizing for an extramarital affair that led his mistress to call 911 complaining he was trying to choke her. Democrats took 40 years to so mismanage their affairs that voters threw them out. Republicans, always anxious to streamline government, achieved that goal in just 12.
5. Rummy Felled
George Bush spent so much time defending his embattled secretary of defense this year it almost deserved a space on his daily calendar: work out, support Rumsfeld, lunch. After Republicans lost control of Congress on Election Day in what Bush called a “thumpin’,” the president announced that he was firing his embattled secretary of defense because the war effort needed a new set of eyes. It was a decisive move that could have signaled a course correction from Bush had he not asserted a week earlier that Rumsfeld was safe in his job. The fib matched one the president had told earlier in the year about replacing his treasury secretary and offered final proof that Bush was only candid when caught swearing off mic. After the firing, a memo leaked, written by Rumsfeld just days before, that showed he was evaluating a wide range of alternative policies, including some that Democrats had put forth. The Rumsfeld memo bears the secretary’s personal hallmarks of bureaucratic vengeance and ass-covering. Rumsfeld or someone serving his interests may have leaked it in an effort to show that he wasn’t clueless or blind to the reality on the ground in Iraq. The president and his aides may want to get their memoirs out before Rumsfeld does.