The year that was in politics

It would be nice to feel, after one of the most costly and abrasive presidential campaigns in our nation's history, that the fog has cleared from the miasma of the year 2012, revealing bright prospects for a better 2013. It would also be nice to know that a cure for cancer has been found.

But the main political event of this year -- the re-election of President Barack Obama by a somewhat better margin than had been anticipated by most -- has left him embarking on his second term with most of the economic and political challenges of the past year clinging to him, and to the country.

While the election slightly enhanced Democratic strength in Congress, the continued division of power leaving a troubled and recalcitrant House Republican majority in place augurs ill for any significant change in the atmosphere of combat and stalemate that made 2012 a political quagmire.

The year saw a mixture of natural and man-made calamities -- from Hurricane Sandy and Midwest and Far West forest fires to the horrendous shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., and the precipitous fiscal cliff threatening another recession.

The election's outcome revealed the growth of political power among minorities, ethnic groups and women benefiting Mr. Obama, while imperiling the future of the Republican Party, which was shown to have little centrist strength. Mitt Romney relentlessly courted his party's conservative base until a last-hour pivot to the middle that came too late.

The election also confirmed the deleterious effect of unleashing a flood of unlimited, allegedly independent campaign funding by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The continuing emergence of super PACs funded significantly by wealthy donors further polluted campaign discourse, as tens of millions of dollars funded nonstop radio and television advertising for both sides. Often the formal campaign managers expressed dismay, claiming helplessness to combat it -- through crocodile tears.

The same Supreme Court that had unshackled the flow of campaign money surprisingly dealt the Republicans a blow with its 5-4 decision upholding the bulk of Mr. Obama's health care act, thereby harpooning a central GOP campaign pitch to "repeal and replace" what the out party dubbed "Obamacare."

The epidemic of campaign debates, first amid a field of mostly mediocre Republican candidates (including has-been Newt Gingrich) on a spoiler mission against Mitt Romney in the primaries, and then in the general election, dominated the poltical conversation to an unprecedented degree.

Those fall debates between Messrs. Obama and Romney offered unparalleled and possibly decisive drama. The president was unexpectedly unimpressive in the first of them, requiring a stronger argument from Vice President Joe Biden in his faceoff with Republican running mate Paul Ryan in the second.

Mr. Obama recovered in the next two presidential debates, capitalizing on Romney remarks seemingly characterizing nearly half of Americans as moochers of government handouts and "gifts" in a society mired in class warfare. Old-fashioned campaigning around the country continued but was overshadowed by the debates, the avalanche of airwave advertising and, at the close, by a superior Obama "ground game."

The overwhelming support of Hispanic, Asian and African-American voters for Mr. Obama obliged many leading Republicans to issue election post-mortems declaring their party's need to broaden its base. They particularly called for addressing immigration reform along the southern gateway for Central and South American Latinos seeking to join already emigrated family members.

But the year-end tragedy of the murder of 20 schoolchildren and six attending adults in a Connecticut grade school suddenly put the issue of gun control, especially the availability of military-style assault weapons, on Mr. Obama's legislative front burner for 2013. He named Mr. Biden, a veteran in the fight to ban such killing machines, as point man.

Meanwhile, regardless of any 11th-hour efforts by the administration and Congress to avoid going over the much-feared "fiscal cliff," the clash of wills will go on. So-called class warfare -- between Republicans' determination to slash the size and reach of government and Democrats' defense of middle-class benefits and the social safety net -- will remain with us into 2013. Happy New Year.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at

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