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Mackowiak: The Political Winners of 2011

The intensity of the news cycle has produced more news coverage but less analysis of trends. Fortunately, the end of the calendar year provides both a calm period of time and the necessary reflective mood to enable one to take stock of what occurred over the past year.

The televised Republican presidential debates drew larger audiences than anyone expected, including news executives, confirming the suspicion that politics is in high demand.

The best way to predict the future is to analyze the past. So as we head into 2012, we should first examine who had the best year in politics in 2011.

My suggested winners are:

— Gov. Chris Christie. No figure in American politics has captured the imagination like the New Jersey Republican. Inheriting a budget disaster in 2009, Christie has turned New Jersey upside down with bluntness, leadership, honesty and guts. He was courted to run for president by some of the heaviest hitters in politics and finance but passed, not because he did not think he could win, but because he did not think he was ready. Christie’s Oct. 4 news conference when he announced his decision was pitch perfect, delivered with humility and grace, convincing even the most cynical watcher that he felt he could not violate his promise to New Jersey by leaving early to seek national office. His team, including political adviser Mike DuHaime, Deputy Chiefs of Staff Bill Stepien and Maria Comella, and consigliere Bill Palatucci, is among the sharpest and shrewdest in the country. His endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney provided a major boost for Romney’s campaign, and his criticisms of President Barack Obama’s leadership have had the greatest resonance of any previously made by a Republican. He must now delicately balance the call of national politics with his own state’s challenges and his re-election bid in a blue state in 2013.

— Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A former (controversial) Cabinet secretary and immediate past attorney general of New York, the Democrat was elected by a landslide to the same office his father famously held. In the process, after a rare political comeback, Cuomo has become a powerful governor, following a string of failures that preceded him in that office. Cuomo made national news when he passed landmark same-sex marriage legislation in June, causing the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza to write a piece titled “Andrew Cuomo: 2016 Frontrunner?” A September Quinnipiac poll found 66 percent approving of Cuomo’s job performance, a major achievement in a state in the fiscal mess that New York is with a Legislature universally believed to be among the most dysfunctional in the country. Cuomo, now proposing major tax reform (including increases for the wealthy), raised $20 million for his 2010 election, and the media and financial power of New York cannot be overstated for national politics.

— Gov. Bobby Jindal. This is one guy to watch. Not only is the Louisiana Republican the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history, he won election to a second term as governor of Louisiana by “the highest victory percentage for any candidate since the state instituted its so-called ‘jungle primary’ in 1978,” per the Washington Post’s Cillizza. Indeed, he won every parish, 64 of them. He is expected to spend his political capital on education and health care reforms. In 2007, almost immediately after winning election with 54 percent of the vote, he called a special session to pass some of the most sweeping ethics reform legislation in the country in a state with a dubious ethical history. His resume is unparalleled in modern American politics: Brown University graduate, Rhodes scholar, consultant at McKinsey and Co., secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (appointed at 25 years old), executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, president of the University of Louisiana System, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and a Member of Congress. He is only 40 years old, and although he endorsed his friend and neighbor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for president in 2012, he is a very likely (and attractive) candidate for national office in 2016 or 2020.

— Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. While conservatives may feel that the Obama administration accomplishments on foreign policy are both reflective of continuing Bush-era policies and overblown, Clinton has emerged as a power player in the Obama Cabinet and on the world stage. Gallup’s December 2010 nationwide poll found that Clinton was the most admired woman in America, ahead of Sarah Palin, Oprah Winfrey, first lady Michelle Obama, Queen Elizabeth and Angelina Jolie. A March 2011 Gallup poll found that she had 66 percent approval. When Clinton aired the infamous “3 a.m. Phone Call” ad in her 2008 campaign against Obama, she could never have imagined that she would be answering the phone herself from Foggy Bottom, rather than the residence of the White House. Clinton has delicately handled crises in Libya, Egypt, North Korea, Tunisia, Syria, Burma and other hot spots around the world over the past year. While 2012, and her legacy as secretary of State, will likely be judged by what the end result is with the gathering threat posed by Iran, she has succeeded by doing her job, not making news, being a team player and ignoring domestic politics. Should she choose to run, she will be the frontrunner in 2016 on the Democratic side.

— Rep. Paul Ryan. Big ideas are rare in today’s world of demagoguery. The House Budget chairman has lived up to the example of the late Jack Kemp, his mentor, in taking on big issues, providing intellectual leadership and displaying courage, all while maintaining a cheery disposition. The Wisconsin Republican united the GOP conference behind his 2011 budget in February, only to see Senate Democrats fail to produce one of their own. His reward? Have national television ads run against him claiming he would push grandmothers over a cliff. Before the year ended, Ryan teamed up with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to offer a bipartisan plan to reform Medicare, which Washington Post blogger Jen Rubin called “an extraordinary political and policy breakthrough.” Ryan had the potential to unify the conservative and establishment wings of the Republican Party in 2012 had he sought the presidency, but he passed (he also opted not to run for an open Senate seat). Instead, he chose to seek re-election to the House, take on a role raising money for the national party, see his wife and raise their small children each weekend in Janesville, and wait for the chance to wield the gavel as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2013, where he may finally achieve his dream of major tax reform. He will be a top choice for vice president.

Those are the winners. A few others deserve an honorable mention:

— Gov. Susana Martinez. The New Mexico Republican is the first Latina Republican governor in American history, and her first term has been a success, to date. Recent polling by the Democratic-leaning firm PPP found that she had a 50-39 approval rating in a state Obama won in 2008 by 15 points. A GOP-leaning firm, POS, recently found that Martinez has a 65 percent approval rating. Martinez has focused on reform, and her early success has brought her accolades and national attention. In late November, Martinez was elected to the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association, which will introduce her to major national donors. New Mexico is expected to be a major battleground state and the Hispanic demographic nationally will be a key to the 2012 presidential election, making Martinez a likely candidate for VP or, at a minimum, a major surrogate for the Republican nominee.

— Gov. Bob McDonnell. Now the Republican Governors Association chairman, McDonnell raised more than $5 million for his political action committee in 2011 with the singular goal of retaking control of the Virginia Senate. He achieved it (barely), as he now holds the tiebreaking vote through Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. Now controlling the House of Delegates and the Senate, McDonnell enters the 2012 legislative session in Richmond with a bold agenda, political capital and the clock ticking (he is term limited in 2013). He will be on the short list for vice president in 2012.

— Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Perhaps no Democratic House Member is more often featured on television than Van Hollen, ranking member of the House Budget Committee. The Marylander has several major advantages that set him apart from his leadership colleagues. First, Van Hollen invested two campaign cycles (2006 and 2008) in the taxing, stress-filled job of chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. These four years of service earned him chits with dozens of Members, a national fundraising base, proven experience communicating on television and political chops. Second, Van Hollen is in a safe district in blue Maryland, removing any worries about re-election. Third, Van Hollen won election as the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, opposite one of the Republican Party’s leading lights in Ryan, affording him an opportunity to lead, respond to or frame anything on the committee’s agenda, which led the news for much of the first half of the year. Van Hollen is likely to attempt succeeding Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as House Minority Leader in 2013, should she retire or not run again.

— Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). Rubio could have immediately been a national star once he was elected to the Senate in 2010 in one of the most unlikely long-shot bids in modern history. Instead, he focused on his home state, Senate committee work and learning the ropes of the arcane Senate. Coons also benefited from the tea party in 2010, when it helped nominate the unelectable Christine O’Donnell instead of Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a former governor. Coons easily won and will likely be a Senator for life, as his predecessor, Joe Biden, was before becoming vice president. Rubio and Coons teamed up to author the AGREE Act, jobs legislation that addresses tax, economic and immigration issues on which there is broad agreement between the two parties, providing a successful model for future bipartisan work in a period of hyper-partisanship.

Matt Mackowiak is a Republican consultant based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, and president of Potomac Strategy Group.

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