Biggest political winners and losers of 2009

2:03 PM, Dec 31, 2009   |    comments
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WASHINGTON - In June, you're an up-and-coming Republican senator, giving a speech and shaking hands in Iowa, site of the opening contest in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes. In July, you're explaining that the $96,000 your parents paid to the family of your former mistress wasn't hush money.

John Ensign: Loser.

In January, you're the nation's beleaguered top banker, spending trillions of dollars in a frantic effort to avert a depression. In December, the Senate is poised to confirm you for a second term to head the Federal Reserve and Time magazine names you Person of the Year.

Ben Bernanke: Winner.

It's been a long, tough 12 months in politics. Sonia Sotomayor landed a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court - a breakthrough that has made her a hero to many Hispanics - while Washington socialite celebrities Michaele and Tareq Salahi may have gotten more than they bargained for when they strolled uninvited into that state dinner. Their escapade also cost an embarrassed Secret Service and White House social secretary Desiree Rogers.

As 2009 draws to a close, here's a look at some of the year's biggest political winners and losers, based both on a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll and the judgment of political veterans.

WINNERS

Michelle Obama: 'Mom in chief'

Michelle Obama scored the sort of political turnaround that many elected officials could only envy.

During the 2008 campaign, she was a mixed asset for husband Barack Obama. "People initially saw her as divisive and political," a "caricature," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says.

Now the first lady leads the field in a USA TODAY survey in December that asked Americans to rate winners and losers in politics. Three-fourths of those surveyed, including half of Republicans, called her a winner.

(In contrast, President Obama was deemed a winner by 58%, including just one in five Republicans.)

Many Americans have warmed to a first lady who has brought poetry slams to the East Room and a vegetable garden to the South Lawn, and seems to put daughters Sasha and Malia first.

"She's mom in chief," Lake says. "People really respect that value, and her initiatives derive from her values as a mom -- on obesity in kids and mentoring for girls. It's a very modern agenda presented in a very non-threatening way."

Ben Bernanke: Back from the brink

In 2008, Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Board chairman, could be faulted for errors that worsened the economic meltdown, Princeton economist Alan Blinder says. In 2009, however, Blinder and others praise Bernanke's leadership as essential.

"If you were going to make a list of the people who saved us from the Great Depression II, he's right at the top," says Blinder, who was vice chairman of the Fed before Bernanke's tenure. In the process, Bernanke "deployed an array of weaponry that no Fed chairman in the history of the institution has ever thought of."

The professorial Bernanke injected trillions of dollars into the economy to jumpstart credit markets and rescue investment banks, mutual funds and insurance companies. He made the cover of Time as the magazine's "person of the year."

Appointed to lead the Fed by George W. Bush, Bernanke was nominated by Obama in August for another four-year term. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a conservative Republican, says Bernanke should have heeded the signs of a meltdown sooner, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is one of the most liberal members of the Senate, says Bernanke's done more for Wall Street than Main Street. Americans are divided, too: 37% called him a winner, 35% a loser.

Even so, Bernanke's confirmation seems all but assured. The tougher battle ahead is over proposals in Congress that would strip the Fed of its regulatory authority over major banks and audit its decisions on interest rates.

That, and keeping the economy going.

Sarah Palin: Winning by losing
Sarah Palin started the year as the vice presidential nominee on the losing ticket. As John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and Dan Quayle can attest, that's not necessarily a promising launching pad. In July, Palin announced she was resigning as governor of Alaska a little more than halfway through her four-year term.

Yet by the end of 2009, she was a best-selling author and a hero for anti-spending, anti-Obama Tea Party conservatives who are emerging as a political force. Palin also began doing the sort of things more conventional politicians with national ambitions try to do, such as appearing on Oprah and writing a Washington Post op-ed on climate change. (She's a skeptic.)

"She's going to be a player the next time around," predicts Republican pollster Ed Goeas, although he says Palin has "a one-to-one relationship with voters" -- which he goes on to explain means that for every voter who adores her, another can't stand her. In the USA TODAY survey, 46% of Americans (including three-fourths of Republicans) called her a winner; 49% (including three-fourths of Democrats) called her a loser.

Sonia Sotomayor: Off to a fast start

From the start, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed right at home on the Supreme Court. National Law Journal calculated that she asked 146 questions during two weeks in November -- more than Chief Justice John Roberts or the assertive Justice Samuel Alito during their comparable early days on the high court.

By 57%-24%, those surveyed called her a winner.

She's "made a space for herself on the court as an active justice," says Cristina Rodr�guez, a law professor at New York University and a clerk for Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice, who left the high court in 2006.

The lively Sotomayor is the Supreme Court's 111th justice, third woman and first Hispanic. "I think it's a point of pride" for many Latinos because "it suggests membership in the mainstream establishment," Rodriguez says, though her reputation and legacy "will rise and fall on how she performs as a justice."

Tea Party conservatives: Taking charge

An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll in December found the Republican Party was viewed favorably by 28% of those surveyed and the Democrats by 35% -- both bested by the Tea Party, which was favorably rated by 41%. That's not a majority, but it's better than the more established competition.

It is more of a libertarian movement with a populist flavor -- its name refers to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution -- than it is a formal political party. Urged on by Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck and others, protesters disrupted meetings that members of Congress held on health care changes last summer. They generally oppose deficit spending, Wall Street bailouts and the Obama administration.

In a special House election in Upstate New York, activists forced out the Republican candidate as too moderate in favor of a more conservative contender, who then lost to the Democratic candidate. Some Republicans worry that a push to the right in primaries could make it harder for the GOP to win general elections.

"There are huge debates within the Republican Party" about how to respond to the "very vocal group," Goeas says. "My advice has been to hug-and-shrug." That is, the GOP shouldn't try to control Tea Party forces but rather "stand shoulder-to-shoulder" with them.

LOSERS

Michaele and Tariq Salahi: Crashing into reality

If Michaele and Tareq Salahi were looking for attention, they could claim to be winners.

The most famous party crashers of the year -- their walk into the first state dinner at the White House on Nov. 24 has been on a seemingly unending video loop on cable TV -- had been competing to appear on a reality TV show called Real Housewives of D.C. They may still get the gig.

There can, however, be too much of a good thing -- including attention. A House committee has subpoenaed the pair to testify about the security lapses that allowed them to get into the White House. (The Salahis' attorney says they will invoke the Fifth Amendment and stay mum.) The state of Virginia has begun a investigation into the business the Salahis run that they say raises funds for a charitable organization. The Washington Post has been running a series detailing the unpaid bills and lawsuits in the couple's wake.

Most ominous for the couple is the official investigation underway. Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, predicts the Justice Department will prosecute the Salahis, although for what isn't precisely clear.

"If the government is serious about protecting the president, the government must prosecute them for something," DiGenova says. "This is not a college prank."

There have been damaging repercussions as well for Desiree Rogers, who didn't have social office staffers stationed at the entrance where the Salahis sailed through, and the Secret Service, which has suspended three uniformed officers involved.

The Salahis, who avidly have sought a role at the black-tie dinners of official Washington and the help of politicians for their fundraising cause, now are the most famous White House guests of the year. They scored at the bottom of the USA TODAY survey: Seven of 10 labeled them "losers."

Mark Sanford, John Ensign & John Edwards: Scarred by scandal

Before Tiger Woods, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign led the scandal headlines.

Both Republicans had ambitions for national office that were dashed by personal misbehavior that made them punch lines for comics.

Sanford, a conservative two-term governor on John McCain's short list of vice presidential prospects in 2008, disappeared in June on what aides said was a hike on the Appalachian Trail. The married father of four turned out to be in Buenos Aires with a woman he called his "soul mate." In December, he escaped impeachment but his wife, Jenny, filed for divorce.

Ensign, who got involved in politics through the evangelical ministry Promise Keepers, had made an exploratory trip to Iowa a few weeks before he admitted having an affair with the wife of his top Senate aide. Ensign's parents had paid the woman's family nearly $100,000.

Then there's John Edwards, the two-time presidential contender and the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004. He already had admitted an extramarital affair, though he denied being the father of the woman's child. Also, a federal grand jury began investigating whether he had misused campaign funds in a coverup and a former campaign aide -- the one who initially claimed to be the baby's father -- wrote a tell-all book scheduled to be published in February.

Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, who has written movingly about her continuing battle with cancer, brought out her own tome about dealing with his infidelity, titled Resilience.

"Each of them engaged in conduct that directly demolishes the very character/candidate profile that constituted their brand platform," Chris Lehane, a consultant who worked at the Clinton White House during impeachment, says of the three men. "That is why it is very hard for them to ever fully recover."

Mike Huckabee: Stumbling before race started

Without much money, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the opening Iowa caucuses in 2008's GOP presidential contest. For 2012, he led the field in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Oct. 31-Nov. 1 -- and was the only one of six GOP prospects seen by at least 50% of Americans as qualified for the job.

Three weeks later, Huckabee's prospects were upended by the ambush slaying of four Seattle-area police officers by an ex-con named Maurice Clemmons. In 2000, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons' sentence of 108 years in an Arkansas prison.

Huckabee issued a statement blaming "a series of failures in the criminal justice system" for the tragedy and later said that he "obviously would have made a different decision" if he had known what would happen. There's no reliable public polling to indicate how many Americans are aware of the tragedy.

However, strategists who have dealt with similar controversies predict devastating damage from the controversy, which would make easy fodder for an emotional 30-second TV ad.

Tad Devine was a top aide in the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. The Democratic nominee struggled to respond to a furor over a convicted killer named Willie Horton, who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison while Dukakis was governor.

"These episodes from the past can come out and haunt campaigns and candidacies," Devine says. For Huckabee, it undercuts a key asset: His claim to being an effective governor.

Governors: Coast to coast

It may be the worst political job in the country right now.

In states large and small, governors are bearing the brunt of voter anger about the economy and government services. The battering runs from coast to coast: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and New York Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, have identical and equally dismal approval ratings in their states of 27%, according to the averages calculated by pollster.com.

In surveys in 22 states through the year, Public Policy Polling found only three governors (in Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia) with ratings that topped 50%. Because of the recession, governors have had to deal not only with declining tax revenue but also with rising demand for government services.

"It's not Democrats or Republicans in particular being targeted," pollster Tom Jensen says. "It's really anybody who had a tough budgetary decision they had to deal with."

That's a recipe for upsets in 2010 elections. Of 37 states with gubernatorial contests, half are rated by the non-partisan Cook Political Report as tossups or candidates for turnover.

Susan Page, USA TODAY

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