Year-End Recall: Rothenberg Rates The Year in Politics

Posted December 12, 2003 at 1:14pm

[IMGCAP(1)]From surging former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean to recalled California Gov. Gray Davis, here are my winners and losers of 2003:


Howard Dean
Nobody expected the former Vermont governor to evolve from underfunded also-ran to Democratic presidential frontrunner during 2003, but he did. It must be his warm and fuzzy style. He began the year with energy and a compelling message, built strong organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire and has added money and two major union endorsements. He didn’t just exceed those early expectations. He and his campaign team, including Joe Trippi and Steve McMahon, demolished them.

John Breaux
The Democratic Senator from Louisiana demonstrated his political skills both on Capitol Hill and back home in the Cajun State. Not only did he play a crucial role in passing a Medicare prescription drug compromise, but he also had a role in electing Democrat Kathleen Blanco in this year’s Louisiana gubernatorial race. If Breaux leaves the Senate after his current term is up (or before), that body will be much poorer for his exit.

The GOP telephone bank firm took in almost $85 million from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Not a bad haul, huh?

Maria Shriver
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife turned out to be an important asset, neutralizing some of the Democratic criticism of her husband. And he needed her in the final days of the recall election, when he was under attack from female accusers who said he had groped them. For the first time in years, someone from the Kennedy clan had a decent political year.

Karl Rove
A reviving economy. Photos and taped footage of President Bush serving Thanksgiving dinner in Iraq. Passage of Medicare reform and a prescription drug benefit. Sounds like some pretty good news for the president’s top political adviser, doesn’t it?

Dennis Hastert
The Republican-controlled House has very quietly delivered everything that it promised, while the Senate couldn’t deliver an energy bill or a handful of controversial judges. True, House rules have made it easier for the Republican Speaker from Illinois, but he and his leadership team deserve some credit for keeping his troops in line.

Richard Gephardt
The Democratic Representative from Missouri began the year as yesterday’s news but ends it as Dean’s most serious competitor for the Democratic nomination. He’s the Comeback Kid of ’03 thanks to his health care initiative, well-orchestrated union endorsement rollout and strong domestic policy message.


Gray Davis
The former California governor was removed from office when even Democrats voted to recall him. His replacement is an Austrian-born bodybuilder who can’t even pronounce the name of the state in which he lives and who is a Republican in a state where being a Republican is as much an asset as being a member of al Qaeda. No, this wasn’t a very good year for Gray Davis.

Uday and Qsay
The sons of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein are dead. Under the circumstances, I’d call that losing.

John Kerry
The Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential frontrunner in January has become a long shot in December in spite of plenty of money, strong organizations in early states and an impressive résumé. His vote for the war and his inability to connect with real people have him moving in the wrong direction.

Mitch Daniels
The unexpected death of Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) has created a new dynamic in the Indiana gubernatorial race. Joe Kernan (D), the state’s lieutenant governor, had announced that he was retiring from politics, leaving his party with a weak nominee for governor. But Kernan, who has taken over as governor following O’Bannon’s death, has reversed himself and will be his party’s nominee for governor. Daniels, the former Office of Management and Budget director, still has a good chance of winning the GOP nomination and the governorship, but he now must face a more formidable foe in a much tougher race.

Ross Perot
Normally, a skyrocketing deficit would bring former presidential hopeful Perot back into the picture. But with Larry King obsessed with the Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson cases and TV legal analyst Nancy Grace virtually a permanent guest on King’s show, Perot can’t get any airtime. Sorry, Ross.

Cruz Bustamante
See Gray Davis above. Plus, California’s Democratic lieutenant governor ran one of the worst races in modern campaign history.

The Texas Legislature
Lone Star State Republicans finally rammed through a new Congressional redistricting map that threatens most Anglo Democratic Members of Congress, thereby displaying a new level of partisanship and contempt for comity. Democrats fulfilled their legislative duties by fleeing the state. Both parties clearly need some sort of adult supervision.

Bob Graham
Many Americans outside of the Sunshine State will remember the Florida Democratic Senator only for his less than impressive presidential campaign. That is a pity, considering his years of public service (as both governor and Senator) and his popularity in Florida.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.