The Summer's Winners and Losers
Some politicians thrived in this summer’s heat—others wilted. See if your scorecard matches The Daily Beast’s count of the season’s victors and victims.
Bill ClintonWith nearly everyone in Washington embroiled in some nastiness over health care, our 42nd president was able to rise above the fray, and hog the headlines. It was Bill Clinton’s Wild and Crazy Summer. He swept into North Korea and rescued two journalists. He ventured to Haiti—he’s now special envoy from the U.N—and promised to return with investors for the poverty-stricken island. He made a splash in Las Vegas, celebrating his birthday with fellow Democratic muckety-mucks. Even his wife seemed to envy his influence, overreacting to a question overseas about what her husband thinks. Bill still made time for the missus: He and Hillary ended August in Bermuda, reportedly at the same spot Chelsea was conceived 29 years ago.
Mitt RomneyThe 2012 presidential election is still some 1,200 days off, so Republicans eyeing a challenge to Barack Obama have a tricky balancing act: They need to quietly make the case for their candidacies, without drawing too much of the spotlight too soon. Perhaps no member of the GOP has been as successful at this two-step as Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. One former campaign staffer described his former boss as “tanned, rested, and ready.” Romney has kept a strong national network in place from the last campaign. His political action committee, Strong America, is raising money. Romney’s got a book in the pipeline, too: No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. That said, there are clouds on the horizon as conservatives, including at least one potential opponent (Tim Pawlenty), have begun to link Romney’s health-care plan in Massachusetts with the Obamacare they despise.
Barney FrankThe congressman from Massachusetts has long been known as one of Washington’s most quotable politicians, even though his witticisms are sometimes hampered by a mouth that seems filled with marbles. At a time when Democrats were getting manhandled at town-hall meetings across the country, Frank won points for giving as good as he got. When asked by a protester, “Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy?” Frank fired back: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” The clip became an instant sensation online and a small victory for the party in power, which otherwise endured a rather punchless summer.
Haley BarbourThis winner’s gains come through another’s losses. The Mississippi governor and former big-time Republican lobbyist was thrust into the spotlight when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford took a walk down the Appalachian Trial and came out politically tarnished on the other side. With Sanford knotted up in a sex scandal, Barbour was promoted to head the Republican Governors’ Association and instantly became the party’s most prominent Southerner. He spent a good deal of time this summer away from the Magnolia State, traveling the country, raising dollars for the GOP—and laying the base for a possible White House run. Few Southern Republicans seem to generate as much interest and affection among party leaders these days as Barbour, as The Daily Beast’s Mark McKinnon has reported.
Al FrankenThis was the Summer of Release: those journalists in North Korea, that fellow from Burma…and Al Franken, who finally escaped legal limbo in Minnesota to take his Senate seat in Washington. For eight seemingly endless months, Franken was locked in a court battle with Norm Coleman over who was the rightful winner of Minnesota’s 2008 throwdown. On June 30, the courts finally ruled in Franken’s favor. He was in D.C. two weeks later to grill Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about her television habits. For the rest of the hearings, the former Saturday Night Live comedian behaved himself.
Chuck GrassleyThe true measure of success for the senior senator from Iowa may not come until later this month, when many expect health-care legislation to take a final form. But no matter the outcome, Grassley placed himself square in the middle of the debate. As the lead Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley was on the frontline of what The New York Times called “the most complex legislation in modern history.” As August wore on, the White House watched Grassley grow ever more resistant to the reform plan—and saw the chances of bipartisan solution support grow ever more remote.
Tim PawlentyThe governor of Minnesota saw his stock rise this summer for two reasons. One, he is a Republican figure with presidential aspirations who managed to avoid scandal—unlike Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and Sarah Palin. Two, like Romney, Pawlenty managed to insert himself into the conversation with grace. Pawlenty emerged as “a key GOP voice during the health-care debate,” according to one report. He expressed frustration with Obama’s plan without giving into the hyperbole and misinformation that dominated the debate.
Jim WebbWatch out, Bill Richardson: Your role as America’s leading diplomatic Caped Crusader is very much in jeopardy. First there was Bill Clinton’s rescue mission to Pyongyang. Then, Sen. Webb, Democrat of Virginia, swooped into Burma and came back with fellow military vet John Yettaw, who had taken an ill-advised swim to the home of detained democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and became a captive of the reclusive regime himself last May. While in Myanmar, Webb became the first top-level American politician to meet with the leader of the ruling junta, Than Shwe. He penned a piece in the Times after his return, arguing for greater American attention to the country.
David VitterHere’s a politician who rises above expectations—which is admittedly not a difficult task when your career has all but been declared dead. In 2007, David Vitter, the junior senator from Louisiana, had been ensnared in the D.C. Madam scandal. He was forced to admit that he had used the services of a prostitute. Now, feeding off the furor in the Pelican State about Obama’s health-care proposals, Vitter seems to be back in favor, gunning to save his seat in the 2010 midterm election.
Barack ObamaHis poll numbers tanked. He lost the PR wars, drowned out by the incessant din of town-hall forums turned into angry conservative rallies. He struggled to keep alive his top domestic priority, as moderates once thought to be possible allies turned into likely enemies. The prospect of a health-care defeat threatened to derail the rest of his agenda. Oh, and did we mention: Afghanistan isn’t going so well? President Obama probably can’t wait for the fall to begin. Maybe things will cool down a bit.
Mark SanfordThere was plenty of competition for a spot on the summer losers’ list. But no one could get in the way of Mark Sanford, the love-struck governor of South Carolina. At first, Sanford’s private walk into the Appalachian woods won praise, a quirky move for a man who had a shot at the Republican nomination in 2012. But then, things fell apart. Turns out the governor was in Argentina with a mistress, not hiking, and he returned with a desperate press conference about his adultery and that “spark thing.” Later, word surfaced that the governor had used public funds to foot the bill for his private mission to Buenos Aires. If anything can turn Sanford’s losing streak around, it would be winning back his graceful wife, Jenny—his closest political adviser during the less turbulent stages of his career.
John Edwards“Who, you might ask, really cares at this point?” That was one pundit's take on the Edwards fiasco. It’s gotten hard to watch. The National Enquirer, which broke the story of Edwards’ affair, reported that the former presidential candidate and North Carolina senator took a paternity test that proved he is the father of Rielle Hunter’s 18-month-old child. To make things worse, Hunter is supposed to be moving into Edwards’ Wilmington, N.C., neighborhood. Elizabeth Edwards, on the other hand, seems to be doing OK: She followed the spring release of her book Resilience by opening a furniture store.
John EnsignThis summer proved sticky for another Republican with designs on the White House in 2012. The senator from Nevada, a married man, was caught having an affair with another staff member. The worst part? Ensign had to borrow $100,000 from his parents to pay the woman off. Actually, wait, the truly worst part? The senator emerged at the end of August, defending himself by saying the he had not “done anything legally wrong.” Might not be the best line of defense for a guy interested in the family-values vote.
Sarah PalinIt’s hard to believe that only one year ago, Sarah Palin emerged from the cold of Alaska to the bright lights of a national campaign when John McCain selected her as his running mate. By mid-summer, Todd Purdum had published a splashy article on the infighting between the McCain and Palin camps. A few weeks later, Palin announced that she was leaving the governor’s mansion for good. Then Palin fired up her Facebook page, launching attacks on Obama’s health care plan—claiming it called for the creation of "death panels," a charge the White House (and many independent analysts) deny. During the campaign, Palin was faulted for appearing not to read many periodicals. But can you blame her? Vanity Fair capped off the summer with a searing piece from channeling her daughter’s erstwhile fiancé, Levi Johnston, who painted a devastating portrait of Palin’s marriage and work habits.
David PatersonThe hits just kept coming for New York Gov. David Paterson this summer. The accidental governor, who assumed Albany’s top office after Eliot Spitzer’s career was squelched by a sex scandal, started off his term by fumbling the search for Hillary Clinton’s successor in the Senate. Then political wrangling in the state capital reached epic proportions when two members of the governor’s party defected, leading to lockouts. Paterson’s pick for a lieutenant governor was rejected by the courts. Now, fellow Democrats don’t want Paterson anywhere near them when they campaign for reelection. In one interview, he blamed racism for his political troubles and said the same fate awaited Barack Obama. He spent the end of August trying to walk those comments back. Even his decision to shave his beard drew political fire.
Bobby JindalOnce seen as the Republican Party’s best hope for recapturing the White House, Bobby Jindal has nearly disappeared from the national scene. In February, the young governor from Louisiana was tapped to give his party’s official reply to President Obama’s joint address to Congress. It didn’t go so well, and he has kept a remarkably low profile ever since. As The Daily Beast reported, the shadow of Audra Shay, the “Facebook Racist” fell over Jindal among others. Shay, a Louisiana native, listed Jindal as one of her supporters, and the Louisiana governor struggled to distance himself from her.
Charlie CristThe Florida governor joins our list of losers because of some seriously bad timing. Crist, who had been among those seen as a possible running mate for John McCain in 2008, was gearing up to run for Mel Martinez’s open Senate seat. But Martinez is retiring early and Crist had to choose a replacement. It might not seem like a tough task, but Crist stumbled, eventually choosing his former chief of staff, George LeMieux—a pick which promptly drew catcalls from the state’s newspapers. Crist also raised eyebrows by saying that his prayers were responsible for keeping hurricanes away from Florida these last few years.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.