We've ended a fascinating year in politics, and 2011 promises to be just as good. Here's who to watch in the coming year:
David Plouffe. He managed the 2008 Obama campaign and is heading to Washington to take the job of David Axelrod, the White House adviser leaving for Chicago to start up the 2012 re-election campaign. Plouffe, who is known as a clear-eyed strategic thinker, will reportedly be in charge of messaging and press relations—both areas with huge opportunities for improvement, to put it nicely.
John Boehner. The new speaker's first move was to announce the installation of women's bathrooms closer to the House floor (the closest is currently a hike through Statuary Hall). His second move: lifting the ban on electronic devices other than phones on the House floor. Neither one is earth-shaking, but both show his commitment to bringing Congress into the 21st century. Next: passage of new rules to cut spending and increase transparency, as promised in the GOP's pre-election Pledge to America. Good luck with that.
Lisa Murkowski. Although she had to resign her Republican leadership position in September after losing the primary to Tea Party-backed Joe Miller, she was seated as Alaska's senior senator after winning the state's first successful write-in campaign. Since the election, she's cast four major votes, all with the Democrats: for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," in support of the tax deal, for ratification of the START treaty, and for cloture for the DREAM Act. She could become a powerful swing vote in a closely divided Senate. [See who donates the most money to Murkowski.]
Nikki Haley. She's the first woman elected governor in South Carolina; she's also the first Indian-American woman elected governor anywhere in the United States. And she's already getting things done. Haley recently persuaded President Obama to consider conditions under which states could opt out of healthcare reform. It was big news for her fellow governors, but the national press missed it and focused on Virginia's lawsuit challenging the reforms. Instead of more lawsuits or an outright repeal, a state-by-state solution could be the answer that works for everyone.
Paul Ryan. The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan is the GOP point man for reforming entitlements, reducing spending, and simplifying the tax code. He was on the president's debt commission, but voted against the final proposal because it didn't do enough to lower healthcare costs. Ryan reluctantly supported the president's tax deal and promised that spending cuts are next. His Roadmap for America's Future is now the operative plan for cutting spending. Until the Democrats propose some viable alternatives, he's the king of the hill. [See an Opinion slide show of the Republican Party's five rising stars.]
Nancy Pelosi. During the midterms, Republicans campaigned against her more than they did against the president. By not stepping down after the Democrats' devastating losses, she'll continue to provide the GOP with plenty of fodder. As a sophisticated San Francisco liberal, Pelosi remains the face of the Democratic Party to many—adding to the party's image as out of touch with working Americans. The more vocal she remains, the better for Republicans.
David Cameron. The conservative British prime minister is leading an austerity government. The recent announcement that college tuitions would triple led to student riots and a Cameron-led crackdown that included dozens of arrests. College tuitions will rise to $13,000 a year there, not something that engenders a lot of American sympathy. But Americans looking for a fiscal way forward will keep an eye on his leadership of a coalition government and his 80-20 model of spending cuts to tax hikes.
Jerry Brown. The new governor of California is facing a $25 billion budget shortfall, and he had promised voters he wouldn't raise taxes without a public vote. Brown is keeping predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger's finance chief, and the Sacramento Bee speculates that he may consider cutting costs by shortening the school year or releasing thousands of prisoners from jail—both of which would get the unhappy attention of middle-class voters. Other governors with similar budget woes will be watching closely.
Independent voters. The single biggest factor in the GOP's midterm success was the nearly 20-point swing away from Democrats among independent voters. Both parties will watch how their policies this year play with independents—from deficit reduction to hot-button social issues—because they know that this increasingly organized voting group holds the key to 2012.
Susana Martinez. She's the nation's first female Hispanic governor, replacing term-limited Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Martinez is a former prosecutor whose campaign ads featured her standing on the border calling for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. Her challenge is to change the GOP's message from anti-illegal immigrant to pro-legal immigration, something the party badly needs if it wants to build a conservative Hispanic coalition by 2012. [See editorial cartoons about immigration.]
Jon Stewart. Officially he's a comedian, but he's fast becoming a political trendsetter, given the number of people who get their first take on news from him. Consider that his shining the spotlight this month on the 9/11 responders healthcare bill helped get it passed. For that, the New York Times compared him to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, whose on-air editorializing turned the public against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. The smart money says he's not going away anytime soon. And it'll be entertaining to watch along with him what 2011 holds for politics.