Winners and losers of the decade: Washington edition

As promised — trumpet fanfare — “The Winners and Losers of the Decade.” Or, as I like to think of it, “The Winners and Losers of the Oughts,” in deference to the zeros in each year of the decade’s numbering, the zeros who were in charge and all that we ought to have done that ...

By , a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group.
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20: President George W. Bush escorts President-elect Barack Obama out of the North Portico of the White House to the limousine they will share on their ride to the Capitol on January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in as the country' 44th president at noon today. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) *** George W. Bush;Barack Obama

As promised — trumpet fanfare — “The Winners and Losers of the Decade.” Or, as I like to think of it, “The Winners and Losers of the Oughts,” in deference to the zeros in each year of the decade’s numbering, the zeros who were in charge and all that we ought to have done that we did not do.

The Losers

George W. Bush: It almost seems too easy. But upon reflection, it’s not even close. Bush wasn’t just born with a silver spoon in his mouth — he inherited America, the world’s sole superpower, with a budget surplus and clear skies ahead. When we were attacked on 9/11, the immediate consequence was unprecedented support for him and for the country. And yet, almost immediately thereafter, he started on a catastrophic set of missteps and bad decisions that had alienated the world by the end of his term. George W. Bush was not just the biggest loser produced by the American political system in the past decade, he was in all likelihood one of the worst presidents in American history and he presided over what was almost certainly the worst international relations calamity since, I don’t know, maybe the Alien and Sedition Acts.

How did he get there? What was the worst of all the bad choices he made? Was it invading Iraq or picking Dick Cheney to be his vice president in the first place — or more properly, letting Dick Cheney choose himself? In the literary biz, we call that foreshadowing … but in the history biz they will almost certainly call it the beginning of the end for a president who undercut American stature like no other, compromised our historic values and at times, seemed like he could barely speak English.

Not only does he get my nod for loser of the decade in the United States, he takes the international crown as well. All hail George W. Bush. Thanks to his bumbling in the highest office in the land, he also achieved the rarest form of comic apotheosis: He became the punch line that didn’t even need a joke. Sadly, for us all, it will always hurt when we laugh.

Al Gore and the American People: There are losers and then there are those who lost.  For the remainder of our lives we will always wonder what might have been. Seldom have there been forks in the road of history as clear as the 2000 U.S. presidential elections. The difference between the two candidates was as thin as the sheet of paper on which the politically stacked Supreme Court reached its compromised decision. In retrospect, it is ever more clear that the election was stolen and America, and countless victims worldwide, were sent hurtling toward a destiny that we and they did not deserve. Gore later would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work battling climate change and has handled the defeat and its aftermath with a grace that would warrant the prize had he done nothing at all. But we cannot help but think how much more we would have done by now to combat climate change had he been in office, how much stronger our relations would be with the world, how many innocents killed by our wars in the Middle East would still be alive. It is the decade’s defining political defeat.


The Cheaters: You can see their faces. You can still hear their excuses. Bill Clinton ushered in their decade with his almost-demented tryst with Monica Lewinsky. But so many others followed that we could almost call the oughts the Decade of the Cheater had it not been for the fact that so many other ghastly things happened that it reminded us that the only people these sleazebags really hurt were their families. Each of course, brought something special. Mark Sanford brought bad poetry. Eliot Spitzer brought unintended irony to his role as Mr. Clean. Larry Craig provided a new twist on bathroom humor. And John Edwards, maybe it’s just that his wife, Elizabeth, is more visible and thus her great qualities are so well known to us all, but he ends up taking the cake as the ultimate scumbucket in the crowd. (And don’t think we’ve forgotten you David Vitter or Mark Foley or Vito Fossella or John Ensign or Kwame Kilpatrick or Ed Schrock or Jim McGreavey or Jack Ryan or Gary Condit … and all you others for whom there is too little space to include them here.) And what do the wives all get? Well, besides our sympathy, they also get to be channeled by Juliana Margulies in “The Good Wife” … which may not heal the wounds, but it’s not nothing.

The Frauds: Sex isn’t the only thing on the minds of our leaders in Washington, of course.  Some of them are also concerned with money. And the past decade produced an especially colorful rogues gallery of scoundrels. There was that clever William Jefferson who tucked his loot away in the freezer, Jim Traficant and the worst toupee in the history of the republic, that dancing fool Tom DeLay and California’s brazen Duke Cunningham. Throw in the tax cheats and the bag men like Jack Abramoff and you have a list that’s, well, even longer than the list of sex scandals.

The Media: You didn’t read about it in your morning papers. When the decade began you had no idea that within 10 years, newspapers and television networks would be foundering and that replacing them in the must-read department would be something called a “blog.”

This was the decade in which a “fake news show,” Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, won more viewers than the New York Times had subscribers. This was the decade in which TMZ and Perez Hilton starting driving the news cycle. Matt Drudge is a right-wing crank who doesn’t believe in global warming (or possibly the idea that the Earth is round) but more people get news from him than from any newspaper in the world. Today, if there were truth in labeling, CNN would be the stock symbol for the company that makes Ambien and worse … much worse. We can look back on a decade in which the two biggest stories, wars in the Middle East and the financial crash of the past few years, were appallingly under covered. In Iraq, the media rolled over and played dead for Don Rumsfeld and re: the financial crash, they were so busy auditioning buying spray tan for their money honeys that almost no one saw the storm clouds on the horizon.

Donald Rumsfeld: Speaking of Rummy, sadly the one major victory achieved by America’s longest serving secretary of defense was running away with the title of worst cabinet secretary of the decade. He’s smart, he’s capable and he began by alienating the brass followed it with promoting toadies and then produced the piece de resistance by collaborating with Dick Cheney on war plans in a way that circumvented and undercut the national security process and did a gross disservice to the president, the U.S. military and the American people. Mission accomplished, indeed.

Team Nutmeg: As the decade began, Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman were in their ascendancy. Dodd was a power in international affairs and overseeing the financial community. Lieberman was the first Jewish candidate for vice president of the United States. Ten years later, Dodd is enmeshed in scandal, unlikely to win re-election, and his track record in terms of financial-community oversight is a blemish on the record of the Senate. Lieberman has become a caucus of one, the opponent of sensible health care reform and the Democrat who was a constant support to his pal John McCain‘s bumbling run for the presidency. The only person with a worse reputation in Connecticut at the moment is Yale football coach Tom Williams, thanks to his breathtakingly stupid decision to go for it on 4th and 22 against Harvard.

The Bad Ideas: So many bad ideas, so little time. Creating the Department of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council only added layers of dysfunctional bureaucracy when we should have been stripping them away. Creating a Directorate of National Intelligence to provide the centralized management of the intelligence community that well, er, was the reason we originally created the CIA (only in Washington folks do you add a 2,000-person bureaucracy to help streamline a process).

But the worst idea of them all: the “war” on terror” … mobilizing the national security resources of the United States to combat a tiny enemy that would better be kept in check most of the time through sound police work and good intelligence sharing with other countries. Defining our every move in terms of this “war” ended up costing hundreds of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives, and our national reputation. Oh … and we didn’t get the guy we were going after.

The U.S. Budget: We started with a surplus. We ended up with deficits that are almost certainly a greater threat to America’s place in the world than all the terrorists of all time added together. Nothing took a hit in D.C. during the past decade like our solvency.

The Financial Establishment: Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson were masters of the universe as the decade began. Ten years later Greenspan was admitting before Congress that he had blown it and Paulson was busily writing a book trying to resurrect his damaged reputation. Remember when being a former CEO of Goldman Sachs actually helped Jon Corzine get elected? The visible leaders of the financial elite have seen their political stock fall faster than their financial ones, if that can be imagined.

Globalists and free traders: Remember back during those Clinton days when we loved the world, NAFTA, the WTO, and cutting trade deals with everyone? You don’t remember? You had nothing to do with that? A failed model? Yeah, yeah … no one remembers now. Quick: Name a trade deal we’re likely to approve in the next three years. Globalization hasn’t stopped … but with the United Steelworkers directing elements of U.S. trade policy (tires, anyone?) and a country built by immigrants that is now squeamish about inviting anyone in to join us … it looks like we’ve got a brewing national consensus to be on the wrong side of history. Next up: President Dobbs?

Dan Snyder: Nice job with the Redskins, Dan.  How many years of failure until you are willing to consider the possibility that the problem with the team isn’t your execs or your coaches or your players but you?

The Business Lobby: Washington has a long history as the trough at which big business fed. During the Bush years, announcing that he was a CEO could even have gotten Tareq Salahi into the White House, no questions asked. Now, despite being located on opposite sides of Lafayette Park, there is no distance in Washington greater than that between the White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And other big business associations are also feeling the chill. As one administration official once said to me, “During the Clinton years, it was easy reaching out to business. Bill Clinton liked rich people.  With this team, well, we’re just not sure yet…” And, of course, the big business mouthpieces aren’t making it any easier for themselves with reflexive rejection of Obama initiatives or, say, minor things like science.

Campaign finance reform: All that said, in the past 10 years, like every other decade, the big loser is campaign finance reform. It’s like the weather: Everyone talks about it, but in the end no one does anything meaningful about it. Who needs lobbyists anyway, if every political official is engaged in a constant search for campaign money? In bundling world, the pols go to the fat cats; the fat cats don’t have to curry favor with the pols.

The Winners

Barack Obama: In the fall of 1999, when Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was planning his run for the Democratic nomination for Congress against the incumbent, former Black Panther Bobby Rush, Rush had an approval rating of 70 percent, Obama’s was 8. Rush said of Obama, “He went to Harvard and became an educated fool. We’re not impressed with these folks with these Eastern elite degrees.” Obama was soundly trounced in the 2000 primaries. It wasn’t until 4 years later that he won election to the U.S. Senate, and four years after that he was elected president of the United States. Even for a city that often makes your head spin, that’s quite a turnaround. Ten years ago he was seen as an outsider by many in his own congressional district; today he’s the Nobel Peace Prize-winning most famous and powerful man in the world.

Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney: Just to be fair, you didn’t know who they were at the beginning of the decade and one of them might just be the next president of the United States. That’s how we roll here in the USA. I mean, where was Sarah Palin in 2000? Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, that’s where. And today, according to recent polls, she, after Huckabee, is the Republican with the best chance of beating Barack Obama for the presidency. Holy Chanukkah Chicken! Can I really be writing those words?

The Iconoclasts: Mike Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger do not fit the picture of successful American politicians. One is a short, Jewish, prickly business genius. The other is an Austrian bodybuilder who made a career in movies despite elocution that makes George W. Bush sound like John Gielgud. But the two of them have during the past decade carved out roles as post-partisan innovators, the men challenging the status quo in politics and generating results to go with the rhetoric. They were that rare breed among politicians, the few who could actually make winners out of the voters themselves.

David Souter: He came, he served with distinction, and then — to the envy of all in the nation’s capital — he got to go home, far away from all this. You may not have noticed he was here … but he symbolizes a class of public servant the country couldn’t do without.

Oprah: It’s not just the Obama connection or the billion dollars or the fact that she can make any book a bestseller. No one gets the zeitgeist of 21st-century America like the Harpo Productions mastermind.(Oh, I get it, Harpo is Oprah, spelled backwards. How did I not notice that?!) Attention, foreign leaders: Watch Oprah. Understand Oprah. Understand her audience. You will understand America much better than you will by reading the cables from your diplomats in Washington, who have almost no contact with real Americans to begin with.

Hillary Clinton: Bill may be on the sidelines now, but they’ve saved the best Clinton for last (well, maybe not last … Chelsea could well be even more impressive than her parents.) Hillary Clinton, after a tough political campaign that still left her after Obama as the most important leader in the majority political party in the most powerful nation on Earth, is defying the odds by becoming the president’s most important foreign-policy partner.  In 2000, she was just a first lady who wanted to do what had never been done and make the transition to electoral politics. She started and finished the decade as the most powerful woman in the world … and utterly transformed herself and her role in the intervening 10 years.

The Financial Establishment: Or, as it is better known, the beast that will not die. Oh sure, Greenspan had to do his mea culpa and Paulson and Corzine and others have been battered. But after the crisis that they caused, who got the bailout? Wall Street or average Americans? And after the bailout who was the first to prosper? Wall Street or average Americans? Where do the big campaign bucks come from, folks? Do the math: America rotates around the Wall Street-Washington axis of power.

Nancy Pelosi: If Hillary is not the most powerful woman in America, Pelosi is. Love her, hate her, she is another of the decade’s great political success stories. She was just a congresswoman from a San Francisco district that would have elected Godzilla if he had been a Democrat in 2000. In 2001, she became House minority whip. In 2004 she became the first woman to be the leader of a major party in the U.S. Congress. Since Obama’s election, she has played an even more vital role as the iron-fisted quarterback expected to shepherd key legislation through the House … which she has done, leaving a few heads on bloody pikes around the Hill to remind people that she may be charming and known for the little things like complementing a colleague’s new hairdo, but she is the toughest character Capitol Hill has produced in this century.

Hispanics and Asians: Politics is about arithmetic. A few years ago the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that the U.S. Hispanic and Asian populations would triple in size during the next four decades while the white population grew only 7 percent. By 2050, “minority” populations will be in the majority. And Washington … which can’t seem to balance its checkbook … certainly has come to understand those numbers. That’s why Obama’s core cabinet has almost replicated them already … and each party spent the past decade scrambling to look for voices from Bobby Jindal to Bill Richardson to reflect this new reality.

David Petraeus: There were few winners in Iraq. David Petraeus was one of them. So much so that there is now widespread buzz of a national political future for the general … a buzz that he does not seem to be doing much to discourage. He, like Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, represent the military crème de la crème who rose to the top thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan by offering antidotes to the perceived mistakes or weaknesses of their predecessors, like Tommy Franks and Richard Myers.

Bob Gates: If Rumsfeld is the worst cabinet secretary of the decade, Gates gets the award as the best. So smart, honest and competent he became essential to both Bush and Obama, it is impossible to write a history of modern American national security without seeing the central role that Bob Gates has played throughout the past three decades. He is regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike as the “ultimate professional,” and that professionalism has never been more acutely tested than since he was asked to replace Rumsfeld. While the final verdict may be mixed on the Iraq and Afghan interventions, a consensus has already emerged around the vital contribution made by Gates.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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