The year 2011 occupied the political space that existed between the upheaval of the 2010 mid-term elections and the build-up to the 2012 presidential elections. It was a year marked as much by foreign events as domestic, between the Arab Spring and a still stagnant national economy. Yet several new players fought their way to the top and made their mark on the political discussion and policies of the country. Here's a list of the most influential political newcomers of 2011.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
The Republican governor of the Badger State took office in 2011 and instantly his crusade to curb union power and state benefits became a proxy war for national groups. The strong-willed chief executive held his ground after Senate Democrats fled the state to avoid voting on his legislation, endured thousands of protestors camping out at the satehouse, and now is facing a recall election based on his efforts. And while it remains to be seen if his politics will endure in traditionally-progressive Wisconsin, Walker has become a hero of the right – particularly participants in the Tea Party wave leading up to the 2010 election. He's everything Tea Partiers want in a leader – someone willing to take on unions, endure criticism from liberals, and remain publicly uncompromising in the face of it all. His success or failure may be the canary in the coal mine for other Republican leaders on the issue of government union reforms.
The Harvard Law School professor long advocated for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. A natural choice to lead it, Warren had to settle for a temporary appointment to set up the bureau but not the real top job because of opposition from Senate Republicans. After returning to her day job, Warren decided (after much prodding from Democratic Party stalwarts) to run against Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown in the 2012 election. Her ability to distill complicated policy into articulate and accessible talking points contrasts her from other national Democratic figures who have failed in that regard. And her passionate advocacy for the middle-class, coinciding with the Occupy movement, has so far propelled her candidacy.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
The House Budget chairman and Wisconsin Republican became a hero of Tea Partiers, skeptics of politicians and false promises alike, when he crafted an actual, tangible plan to balance the federal budget. It had details. It had deep cuts. It made the hard choices. And therefore, it scared the bejeesus out of a lot of people, like those on Medicare. The entitlement would essentially be transformed into a voucher system that does not even pretend to keep up with inflation, meaning it would cost lots of money for the most reliable voting bloc to maintain their current health benefits. The plan has become a polarizing touchstone for the argument about reducing the federal deficit and conservatives hold up Ryan as a thought-leader and bright young star; he was chosen by colleagues to deliver the GOP response to the President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address.
Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
The Florida congresswoman was named Democratic National Committee chair in early 2011, in large part because of her media-savvy messaging. She's often featured on cable channels and quoted in the rest of the media offering punchy analysis, predictably promoting Democrats and criticizing Republicans. First elected to Congress in 2004, Wasserman Schultz disclosed in 2009 she had undergone several surgeries stemming from breast cancer in 2008, though her congressional service was uninterrupted. She's part of a group of young women Democratic congressional leaders expected to play big roles in shaping the party's future success.
House Republican Freshman Class of 2010
Much like the GOP class of 1994, the most recent Republican House Freshman class took office at the beginning of 2011 with high hopes of shaking up the status quo and not compromising their fiscally conservative principles. Indeed, so far to many observers it appears it's the tail that's wagging the dog when it comes to consequential House votes. The 87-member bloc has proven their willingness to take on D.C. convention and even their own speaker by refusing to compromise on issues of deficit reduction and taxation. So while in recent years the question around town has been, 'what can pass the Senate?' it's now, 'what can (House Speaker) John Boehner get passed in the House?'
[Read about Ron Paul's Youth Movement.]
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Is there anything this guy can't do? The Democratic governor of New York cajoled a Republican-dominated state Senate to pass a gay marriage law during his first year in office. But he also brokered a deal with the public sector unions to freeze pay, implement furlough days, and increase worker contributions for health insurance. He capped property taxes and cut spending. Now, he's pushing a package that would increase taxes on the state's wealthiest in order to avoid steep cuts in programs such as education. And he's not being met with universal opposition, unlike other making similar arguments elsewhere around the country. The biggest open secret in Democratic politics is that Cuomo will seek the presidency in 2016.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
The bombastic New Jersey governor was first elected in 2009 but really came into his own in 2011, eschewing calls that he should run for president. In turning down the GOP establishment, Christie became a powerful player in the endorsement game (he backs Mitt Romney) and maintains his wild popularity with the base. And what's got them whipped up into such a frenzy? The former state attorney general's direct manner and willingness to berate the media and citizens he sees as critics of his "common sense" policies. He's fought for and won concessions from his Democratically-controlled legislature on education, labor unions, and budget issues. His unabashed conservatism on one hand and ability to point to tough compromises on the other allows him to tout an ability to work across the aisle and get things accomplished without anyone questioning his credentials. And his confrontational manner has made him a YouTube and television hero to the GOP.
Sec. of State Hillary Clinton
It may be a hard sell to call the former first lady a newcomer, but in her role as Secretary of State Clinton has more influence now than she ever did as a presidential candidate or senator. Far and away the most challenging time during her tenure as the country's top diplomat came during the Arab Spring, when the United States, leading the rest of the world, had to navigate the delicate and rapidly changing Middle Eastern landscape. When do former allies begin getting treated like enemies? From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, that was the question Clinton had to help President Obama answer – both to the world and at home. And it was at Clinton's urging that the U.S. 'led from behind' and engaged in a military operation in Libya, a move initially criticized but eventually deemed necessary and successful. She's not only the most traveled Secretary of State, but she's worked double time making historic trips to places like Myanmar while promoting women's rights around the world.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul
Even if he weren't a top candidate in the GOP presidential race, it could be called the year of Paul because of the influence his long-held ideas have had on the Republican political landscape. Mantras like 'end the Fed' and libertarianism may be en vogue now, but no single politician has worked harder to change the conversation on those topics than Paul. The 12-term Texas congressman's brand of small government politics – genuine and uncompromising – finally found a larger audience during the 2010 mid-term election and has helped fuel his presidential candidacy in 2011. So no matter where he ends up at the end of the presidential race, he's already changed the framework of what it takes for a Republican win the nomination.
They camped. They marched. They mic-checked. And they helped shape the political conversation from worries about deficits to concerns about concentrated wealth and a disappearing middle-class in America. The at-times unruly protestors inhabited public parks starting in New York City and then spread across the country, tapping into a universal angst in 2011, similar to Tea Party protesters of the preceding years. The free-wheeling, bottom-up movement has yet to follow its conservative counterpart's path in recruiting and funding candidates to unseat sitting politicians, though. And the question of whether or not 'Occupiers' have staying power past their broken encampments remains unanswered.
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