- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

As political decades go, the Aughts represented something of a split decision.

Starting with George W. Bush’s cliffhanger win in the 2000 presidential race, Republicans dominated the first half of the decade, highlighted by a precedent-defying win in the 2002 midterm congressional elections and Mr. Bush’s re-election triumph over Democrat John Kerry two years later.

But Democrats staged a strong second-half comeback, reclaiming Congress in 2006 and capturing the White House behind Barack Obama in 2008. At the dawn of the new millennium, Republican governors presided in 30 statehouses to just 18 for the Democrats and two for independents; as 2009 ends, Democrats dominate with 28 governors to 22 for the Republicans.

With poll numbers for Mr. Obama and his party sagging and much of the Democratic agenda seemingly stalled on Capitol Hill, the wheel may be about to turn once more, with Republicans and private analysts increasingly predicting sizable Republican gains next year.

“The Democrats seems to be having a field day tearing each other apart. I think 2010 will be a stormy year,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters as the House was leaving for its recess earlier this month.

But in a momentous era framed by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the election of the nation’s first black president, there were some standout moments for political junkies of all persuasions. As the clock winds down on the 2000s, here are The Washington Times’ picks for the top 10 political plays of the decade in chronological order:

1. Bush vs. Gore

George W. Bush’s best call in the 2000 presidential campaign against Democratic Vice President Al Gore may have come after the votes were counted.

The epic recount battle over Florida’s electoral votes became a battle of ex-secretaries of state - James A. Baker III for Mr. Bush and Warren Christopher in Mr. Gore’s corner. By most accounts, it was Mr. Baker - a top adviser and confidant to President Reagan and Mr. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush - in a knockout.

As the term “hanging chad” entered the American political vocabulary, Mr. Baker aggressively protected Mr. Bush’s legal rights and his slender 537-vote lead. Republican operatives blitzed the counties where critical recounts were being conducted, displaying far more energy (and, critics said, a willingness to intimidate) than Mr. Christopher’s forces on behalf of Mr. Gore.

Aided by Republican Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, Mr. Baker obtained a certification by the state canvassing board declaring Mr. Bush the official winner. When the Florida Supreme Court ordered a major recount of questionable ballots, Mr. Baker turned to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Dec. 12, more than a month after the election, the high court in a 5-4 ruling overturned the recount order and Mr. Gore conceded.

2. Bush and 9/11

Sept. 11, 2001, did not go well for President Bush politically, at first. The first images of the new president showed him reacting uncertainly as aides brought him the news of the first attacks in a Florida grade-school classroom. Bowing to his security detail, Mr. Bush was kept far from Washington as the nation reeled through a day of horror from the simultaneous strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But three days later, Mr. Bush seized a bullhorn and reshaped his image as a crisis manager amid the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center.

As Mr. Bush was addressing the emergency workers swarming the site, one shouted that he couldn’t hear the president’s remarks.

Speaking through the bullhorn, Mr. Bush replied, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

Coupled with a well-received address to a joint session of Congress, the World Trade Center moment provided an iconic image of the president as an uncompromising commander in chief in the new war on terror. Mr. Bush’s approval ratings soared, and his actions cemented his party’s lock on the national security issue.

3. Kerry and ‘swiftboating’

Sen. John Kerry’s decorated Navy service in the Vietnam War was supposed to neutralize Republican efforts to exploit the national security issue in the 2004 presidential election. And then came the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Taking their name from the craft Mr. Kerry piloted during the war, the group of veterans harshly attacked Mr. Kerry’s war record as well as his antiwar activism after returning home. The group produced a string of television ads and a best-selling book slamming the Democratic nominee.

Despite rising doubts about the course of the war in Iraq, Mr. Kerry found himself on the defensive throughout the campaign on national security issues. The 2004 election was close, but President Bush won both the electoral and popular vote for another four years in office.

The campaign introduced a new word into the political lexicon, “swiftboating,” defined variously as a smear campaign, an effort to expose falsehoods in the record of a political candidate, or, more neutrally, a political campaign attack targeting the presumed strengths of the opposing candidate.

4. Obama’s Senate run

It was a decade of barrier-shattering for Barack Obama, but it was his 2004 Senate campaign that first demonstrated that he had the indispensable quality for political success - good luck.

An obscure state senator who had lost a primary race for a House seat in his only previous congressional try, Mr. Obama benefited first from the decision by incumbent Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald not to seek re-election. Former Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and popular Republican ex-Gov. Jim Edgar also passed on the race.

Winning the endorsement of Chicago’s two newspapers and of a number of politically crucial unions, Mr. Obama dominated the eight-candidate Democratic primary in March, winning 52 percent of the vote.

But an expected tough general election fight with Republican candidate Jack Ryan, a wealthy businessman, fizzled when embarrassing charges by Mr. Ryan’s ex-wife in their child custody legal battle were released, forcing the Republican nominee to withdraw. Desperate Illinois Republican officials turned to conservative commentator Alan Keyes as his replacement.

Mr. Obama made some of his own luck, earning national attention with a galvanizing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston that established him as a national figure. He swamped Mr. Keyes in November and four years later was elected president.

5. Bush and the Supreme Court

The process was not without some false starts and midcourse corrections, but President Bush did a far better job in the end than his father in using his Supreme Court picks to reinforce his political philosophy.

George H.W. Bush’s choice of little-known New Hampshire jurist David H. Souter backfired as Justice Souter became a key member of the court’s liberal bloc before retiring earlier this year. George W. Bush’s picks - Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. - appear poised to provide votes and intellectual heft to the court’s more conservative bloc for decades to come.

The low-key, amiable Judge Roberts originally was tapped in the summer of 2005 to succeed the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a key swing vote on many court rulings. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in the midst of Judge Roberts’ confirmation process, Mr. Bush adroitly shifted gears and nominated the then-50-year-old judge for the court’s top post.

The White House then faltered badly by tapping Mr. Bush’s legal counsel and longtime friend Harriet E. Miers for the high court. In the face of a conservative revolt, Mr. Bush withdrew her nomination and four days later selected Judge Alito. Despite Democratic complaints that the choice would push the court further to the right, the Senate confirmed Mr. Bush’s second pick on a 58-42 vote.

6. Democrats in 2006

It’s a cardinal rule of politics: Don’t interrupt your opponent when he’s self-destructing.

Democrats followed the rule to perfection in recapturing both the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. Although House Democratic leaders offered a package of reforms - dubbed “Six for ‘06” - the minority party’s primary agenda in the months leading up to the November election consisted of opposing the Bush administration and highlighting a growing number of scandals and missteps by the Republicans.

It was a target-rich environment, from the faltering war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the failure of President Bush’s drive to overhaul Social Security and a scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, who sent sexually charged messages to teenage congressional pages. The Republican base also was dispirited by the failure of the Republican congressional majorities to control federal spending.

The result: a 31-seat Democratic gain in the House and a gain of six seats in the Senate, a result Mr. Bush would later characterize as a “thumpin’.”

7. Lieberman the independent

Joe Lieberman’s career appeared to be over.

The Connecticut senator and vice-presidential candidate in 2000 suffered a humiliating defeat in the August 2006 Democratic primary, done in by political neophyte Ned Lamont and liberal party activists infuriated by Mr. Lieberman’s support of the war in Iraq.

But saying he was running for “the sake of our state, our country and my party,” Mr. Lieberman stayed in the race as an independent and, with significant Republican support, defeated Mr. Lamont in November to win a fourth Senate term.

The Senate’s electoral math has since provided Mr. Lieberman with added clout, despite rumblings from Democrats eager for revenge. After the 2006 vote, Mr. Lieberman provided the critical 51st vote to allow Democrats to reclaim control of the Senate.

In 2008 - despite his endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona - Mr. Lieberman turned out to be the critical 60th vote Democratic leaders needed to break Republican Senate filibusters. His influence was on display this month as Senate Democratic leaders dropped the public insurance option and an alternative change to Medicare eligibility rules largely because of the Connecticut independent’s threat to bolt.

“Welcome to the Lieberman administration,” liberal blogger Matt Yglesias observed.

8. Obama’s campaign cash

The Obama presidential campaign has been praised for its discipline, its organization and the enthusiasm of its supporters. But the campaign’s best move may have been to break a promise.

Blaming what he said was the Republicans’ ability to “game the system,” Mr. Obama in June 2008 announced in a Web video to supporters that he was refusing federal campaign-finance funds, despite an explicit pledge to do so during the Democratic primary race.

The move led to a couple of days of bad publicity for Mr. Obama and a gusher of campaign cash that swamped all previous spending marks in American political history. Republican rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona did take the public funds, limiting his campaign to $84 million - or roughly a tenth of what Mr. Obama raised by opting out. The Democratic candidate, relying on a pioneering Internet-based fundraising machine, raised $150 million in September 2008 alone.

“We may not have won anyway,” Mr. McCain later told The Washington Times, but with the money disparity, “we couldn’t even compete.”

9. NRA plays defense

The NRA knows how to play defense.

The Democratic sweep of 2008 was supposed to be bad news for the National Rifle Association, but that’s not the way things have worked out. The new Democratic majorities in Congress included a number of freshmen lawmakers in conservative districts, who have proved highly reluctant to take on the potent gun lobby.

President Obama earlier this year backed off from plans to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, despite strong support from party leaders, and reluctantly signed a financial bill which included an NRA-endorsed provision lifting the ban on bringing firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges.

The lobby’s biggest legislative victory has been to attach an amendment to a Senate bill offering congressional representation to the District of Columbia, long a central plank of the Democratic Party platform. The amendment would repeal most of the city’s strict gun-control statutes.

The D.C. bill has languished in the House since March, with House Democratic leaders stymied on ways to move the bill forward without the gun proviso.

10. Blagojevich and Burris

A scandal-plagued soon-to-be-ex-governor and a past-his-prime obscure politician teamed up to best a president-elect, the Senate majority leader and their state’s entire political establishment.

Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat engulfed in a controversy over charges he tried to barter the Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, defied his critics and stunned his party by naming 71-year-old Roland W. Burris - whose last elective office was state attorney general 20 years earlier - to the job.

The Illinois secretary of state at first refused to certify the appointment. Mr. Obama questioned the propriety of the selection. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin - Illinois’s senior senator - vowed not to seat Mr. Blagojevich’s pick.

When Mr. Burris showed up for the Jan. 6, 2009, swearing-in ceremony for new senators, he was denied entry into the chamber.

But fellow black lawmakers rallied to Mr. Burris’ side, the legal case against Mr. Blagojevich’s authority to name an interim senator quickly crumbled, and Mr. Burris was sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney just nine days later.

The Illinois Senate voted to remove Mr. Blagojevich from office two weeks later, and Mr. Burris, under heavy pressure from Democratic Party leaders, agreed not to run for re-election in 2010. But through January 2011 at least, Mr. Burris is officially the junior senator from Illinois.

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