Political winners were hard to come by in 2023.
At home, congressional dysfunction and toxic partisanship dominated. Overseas, in Ukraine and the Middle East, grave conflicts posed big challenges to the United States.
The signature political accomplishments, such as they were, tended to be centered on the avoidance of disaster. A U.S. default was headed off in June. A government shutdown was averted in November. There was little by way of more expansive or ambitious action.
The American public, meanwhile, was fractious and discontented. An Associated Press/NORC poll in October found almost 4 in 5 adults, 78 percent, said the nation was headed in the wrong direction.
The two strong favorites to contest next year’s presidential election — President Biden and former President Trump — elicit strong negative emotions, too.
A December poll, also from AP-NORC, found that 58 percent of adults would be dissatisfied with Trump as the GOP nominee, while 56 percent would feel the same way about Biden as the Democratic standard-bearer.
Still, some figures were able to wrest some kind of moral victory from a rather grim political year — and plenty of others got caught in the downdraft.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.)
If winning is defined by reaching a more elevated position at year’s end than at its start, Johnson is the biggest 2023 victor by far.
Even around Capitol Hill, many people would have struggled to recognize Johnson in January. He was beginning his fourth term, a social conservative from Louisiana who rarely made national news.
Johnson ends the year second in line to the presidency.
Johnson’s election as Speaker came in the most prosaic of ways — as the least bad, most acceptable option for a party that had grown tired of the antics of its most obstreperous members.
After eight rebel Republicans wrested the gavel away from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), three people were nominated in turn by the GOP conference to succeed him: Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).
None got across the finish line.
The fourth time was the charm for Johnson.
Johnson is not a panacea for the tensions that roil the House GOP conference, but he has the advantage that most of his colleagues don’t have the stomach for another bout of Speaker chaos.
Big challenges lie ahead, on vexing issues from immigration to the Ukraine war, but Johnson was a clear winner this year.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley
Haley is the only person who has emerged from this year’s GOP presidential campaign with her reputation unambiguously enhanced.
At the start of the year, a Haley presidential bid was only a possibility and some skeptics wondered whether she would make much of an impression at all.
She closes the year on the cusp of becoming the main alternative to Trump.
One key ingredient in her success was her debate performances. Sharp, concise and measured, she was the clear winner of the first three GOP debates, injecting momentum into her bid at just the right time.
Haley has also run a smooth campaign, avoiding the drama that has come close to capsizing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
She also carved out a lane as a candidate who is stylistically far different from Trump but who rarely condemned him, at least in the race’s early months.
That was more effective, in a party where around 80 percent of the voters have a favorable impression of the former president, than former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s more pugnacious frontal assaults.
Haley is getting edgier in her attacks on both Trump and DeSantis with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary looming.
It bears emphasizing that, if the polls are correct, she is a long, long way behind Trump.
But even if Haley does not become the GOP nominee, she is a far bigger national figure than she was 12 months ago.
Former President Trump
There is an obvious case to be made against Trump being seen as a 2023 winner.
On Jan. 1, he faced no criminal charges. Now he stands indicted in four cases on 91 charges.
His attempts so far to evade a moment of truth — asserting his immunity, seeking to run out the clock and riling up his base with verbal attacks on prosecutors and judges — are far from guaranteed to succeed.
Meanwhile, Trump is ratcheting up his incendiary rhetoric, lambasting opponents as “vermin,” threatening to use the justice system to go after political foes and accusing unauthorized immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country.”
But Trump emerges as a winner from the year simply because he is in a far stronger position at its close than he was at the start.
Back then, he seemed vulnerable even within the GOP after several of his key endorsees in the 2022 midterms were defeated. The DeSantis threat loomed large.
But the Trump Teflon proved more resilient than his detractors expected.
On Dec. 30, Trump was more than 50 points ahead of DeSantis in the national polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ. Even in Iowa, where Trump is a bit less dominant, he led by 36 points in a CBS News/YouGov poll completed on Dec. 15. The bottom line is clear: Trump is the overwhelming favorite to become the GOP nominee.
A general election would be far more competitive but, given Biden’s low approval ratings, it would be reckless to bet against Trump taking back the White House.
The 38-year-old businessman often seems convinced of his specialness, but the latter half of the year revealed him to be a well-worn political “type” — the candidate who rides an initial wave of novelty and freshness until the wave crashes.
Ramaswamy was a political oddity from the start, proclaiming the need for a new generation to take the wheel of the nation, yet also close to sycophantic in his admiration for Trump.
His initial proposals were eye-catching but either impractical or politically imprudent. One idea was to abolish the FBI. Another was to raise the voting age to 25, except in certain circumstances — an ill-advised move by a candidate whose main appeal was to younger voters.
Ramaswamy misfired in the debates too.
His most memorable moment was a bad one — his decision in the third debate to criticize Haley’s daughter for her use of TikTok.
“You’re just scum,” Haley shot back.
If a Biden-Trump general election were held today, Biden would almost certainly be defeated.
The president could still recover his standing before Election Day, perhaps buoyed by an economy that might avoid recession after all. More likely, he could convince just enough voters that Trump is simply unfit for high office.
But it’s very tough to see Biden as anything other than a loser in a year that closed with polls showing him at or near all-time lows.
A Monmouth University poll released Dec. 18 gave Biden an approval rating of just 34 percent — the worst rating of his presidency and one that would almost certainly condemn him to defeat.
To be sure, Biden is afflicted by some difficulties not entirely of his making.
The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel was always sure to engender a ferocious response — and that response was always guaranteed to divide a party that includes pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions, each blazing with passion for the rightness of their cause.
He also had to contend with a divided government in a polarized time. The GOP majority in the House, narrow though it is, all but guarantees Biden cannot move significant legislation.
The courts stymied Biden too at times, on issues from immigration to student debt relief.
Then there’s the big and unavoidable issue: age.
Huge percentages of voters in poll after poll express concern about the president’s capacity to serve a second term effectively.
Fair or otherwise, that perception could be politically fatal.
Biden backers remind reporters — accurately — that the president has often been under-estimated, including in his quest for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
But he is in very troubled waters now.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
It was a year bookended by ignominy for McCarthy.
In January, he was forced to endure 14 rounds of embarrassment as vote after vote failed to deliver enough votes for him to become Speaker. He succeeded on the 15th try.
After all that, he didn’t survive for even nine full months. On Oct. 3, he became the first Speaker in history to be ejected through a motion to vacate.
In McCarthy’s defense, the mechanism was a peculiar one. Just eight members of his party effectively sealed his fate by voting against him — an endeavor that House Democrats were happy to join.
McCarthy’s fury at his enemies — especially their de facto leader, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — was something to behold
It was also reciprocated. When McCarthy announced in December that he would resign his House seat at the end of the year, Gaetz responded with a one-word post on X: “McLeavin.’”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)
It’s debatable whether DeSantis is 2023’s biggest political loser. But he is certainly its biggest disappointment.
DeSantis looked poised to give Trump a real run for his money in the battle for the GOP nomination. He was fresh off a thumping reelection victory in Florida and had a huge war chest.
But the DeSantis campaign took a long time to launch and then went wrong right away, with a glitchy event on what was then called Twitter Spaces. The Florida governor proved a sometimes-awkward figure on the stump and his initial debate performances were average at best.
Then there were the campaign’s internal troubles. Profligate spending led DeSantis to ax roughly one-third of his campaign staff in the summer. Tensions between the official campaign and the main super PAC supporting it, Never Back Down, burst into the open in the final weeks of the year, with a spate of resignations and firings.
The end result has been a campaign that has never got off the back foot.
On May 24, the day DeSantis officially launched his campaign, he was receiving around 22 percent support in the FiveThirtyEight national average. Now, he gets about 12 percent.
It’s possible that DeSantis’s ground operation in Iowa, or some ferocious burst of late advertising, could see him resurrect his fortunes.
But the chances seem very slim right now.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
McConnell’s year was defined by a couple of tough-to-watch moments.
The Senate minority leader froze on two occasions, the first in July at the Capitol, the second in late August in Kentucky.
McConnell would later wave away concerns, telling Margaret Brennan of CBS’s “Face the Nation” in October, “I’m completely recovered and I’m just fine.”
A stroke was ruled out for McConnell, but the two episodes left the 81-year-old appearing more frail than ever before.
There is also a broader sense that the party has been moving away from McConnell for some time.
Trump has long made him a target. The Senate GOP is nowhere near as pro-Trump as its House counterpart, but the party establishment of which McConnell is a pillar is on retreat everywhere. His approval rating among Republican voters is poor.
This dynamic has substantive effects on policy too.
McConnell is among the most vigorous Republican supporters of aid to Ukraine. By the end of the year, he had joined more isolationist members of his party in demanding concessions on border policy as the price for continuing that aid.
McConnell is the longest-serving Senate leader of either party in American history.
But the light looks to be dimming on his political career.
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