NBC News-The 10 biggest political stories of 2013

Dec 18, 2013 2:45 PM

By Mark Murray, Senior Political Editor, NBC News

The first year of a president’s second term is supposed to be a time of continuity, but 2013 gave politicians, pundits, and the public plenty of fresh -- and often chaotic -- drama.

By the end of the year, President Barack Obama, the Republican Party, and the U.S. Congress as a whole have all managed to put themselves into all-time lows in the national polls.

Bottom line: It wasn't a pretty year in politics.

To almost no one's surprise, our top 2 stories are the government shutdown and the bungled rollout of the federal health-care website (read to the bottom to find out which one finished as the No. 1 political story of the year).

Here’s the complete list from the NBC News Political Unit of the top 10 political stories of 2013, in descending order:

10. The IRS and Benghazi controversies: No two issues generated more stories in the early summer than these two controversies for the Obama administration. And no two issues appeared to fizzle more – in both coverage and impact – by the end of the year. The reason: Neither story went all the way to the top to President Obama. Still, they were both a reminder how the opposition party holding subpoena power in the House can create a political nightmare for the White House, especially when there isn’t much competing news. And they did some damage to Obama and his team, especially when you consider what came after. In many ways, these ginned-up controversies by Darrell Issa & Co. helped create the first cracks the president’s political foundation for 2013, making NSA, Syria, and health care more problematic.

9. Gun-control legislation gets blocked in the Senate: Four months after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. Senate considered the most sweeping gun-control legislation in nearly two decades, which included background checks for all gun purchases. But Senate Republicans – plus a handful of Democrats – blocked the legislation, denying it the 60 votes it needed to pass. And with that move, the gun-control effort essentially ended in the 113th Congress. One of the challenges in passing sweeping gun control: According to a Dec. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll, 76% of Democrats support stricter laws governing gun sales, versus just 28% of Republicans who do. And despite all the P.R. efforts at the start of the year, it appears the public hasn’t moved one iota.

8. De Blasio wins in New York: The winner to succeed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was neither City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (viewed as the early front-runner) nor Anthony Weiner (whose campaign took off and then crashed and burned after a new revelation of lewd online behavior). Instead, the winner was NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D), who decried the income inequality during the Bloomberg years, as well as the Bloomberg administration’s controversial stop-and-frisk policing. This TV ad – featuring de Blasio’s son, Dante – is considered the top advertisement of the 2013 campaign season. De Blasio may very well have caught lightning in a bottle, but was his victory a sign of where the Democratic Party is headed nationally?

7. Christie cruises to re-election: Another big Election Night 2013 winner was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who cruised to re-election with a 60%-to-38% victory over challenger Barbara Buono (D) in this Democratic-leaning state. Giving him some strong talking points if he decides to run for president in 2016, Christie won female voters (57%-41%), Latinos (50%-46%), and even got 21% of the African-American vote. Immediately after his re-election victory, he appeared almost everywhere – on the morning shows and Sunday news programs. More than two years until the first 2016 primary contests, Christie is a favorite among establishment Republicans, and he successfully used his re-election to launch his pre-campaign.

6. McAuliffe wins in Virginia: It was the clash of two very flawed candidates in the marquee contest of 2013 – Democrat Terry McAuliffe vs. Republican Ken Cuccinelli. And as it turns out, Cuccinelli was more flawed: McAuliffe beat him, 48%-45%, in a race impacted by the government shutdown, an ethics scandal involving incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), and the early rollout of the health-care law. McAuliffe also made history, becoming the first winner from the party in control of the White House since 1973. More importantly, the Democratic sweep of the statewide offices (assuming the Dems hang on with the AG recount) is nothing to sneeze at. It forces the state GOP to do some real soul-searching.

5. Immigration bill passes the Senate, stalls in the House: After President Obama won Latino voters by a 71%-27% margin in the 2012 presidential race, congressional Democrats – and also a handful of Republicans – made immigration reform the top legislative priority for the 113thCongress. A bipartisan group of senators, known as the “Gang of Eight,” crafted a framework that further strengthened border security and provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In June, the legislation passed the Senate by a bipartisan 68-32 vote, with 14 Republicans in support (though that was a smaller number than many folks thought it would be when the process began). And without that BROAD Senate support, it made it easier for the Republican-controlled House to not take up the measure, insisting instead on a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. One of the top questions of 2014 is whether the House acts on immigration – even by a piecemeal approach.

4. Showdown over Syria’s chemical weapons: It began as a foreign-policy fiasco for the Obama administration. In August, the Assad regime was accused of launching a chemical-weapons attack on its own people, killing more than a thousand people. That attack violated the “red line” that President Obama had set for intervention in that country’s civil war. Hours before the U.S. military was set to launch a limited military strike to retaliate – as well as days after Britain’s parliament voted not to intervene – Obama reversed course and asked Congress to approve a resolution authorizing force. But as Congress was on the verge of voting down the resolution, the administration caught a break. Russia said it supported Secretary of State John Kerry’s seeming off-the-cuff proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons. In late October, the Joint Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, reported that the Syrian regime “completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants.”

3. Snowden’s NSA leaks: On June 5, Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper reported that the U.S. government has collected American’s phone records and other meta-data, and the government later revealed it was part of a National Security Agency program dating back to 2006. That information came from an NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, who left the United States to Hong Kong and then to Russia. The leaks from Snowden didn't stop -- newspapers from around the world reported information that embarrassed the U.S. government, including the allegation that the U.S. spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On Dec. 16, a federal judge ruled that the NSA program collecting meta-data likely violates the U.S. Constitution. No story hurt the president more politically in the first eight months of the year than this one. It did real damage to his brand, particularly with his younger supporters.

2. The government shutdown: If not for the No. 1 story below, this would have been the most impactful political story ahead of next year's midterms. Led by conservative groups and Tea Party-affiliated members, House Republicans vowed they wouldn’t support any legislation funding the government after Sept. 30 unless it repealed or delayed President Obama’s health-care law. Democrats didn’t budge, and federal government shut down on Oct. 1, leading to furloughed workers, stopped paychecks, and the closure of federal parks and national monuments. The Republican Party took it on the chin: A mid-October NBC/WSJ poll found the GOP’s fav/unfav rating at an all-time low, the health-care law’s popularity increased, and Democrats held an 8-point advantage (47%-39%) in congressional preference. For the first time, political analysts believed Democrats had a chance to win back control of the House in 2014. The government shutdown ended on Oct. 16.

1. The botched health-care rollout: Then attention turned to the rollout of the federal health-care website, which also began on Oct. 1. And it became a technical and PR disaster for the administration: The site was riddled with code errors, it could handle just a small number of simultaneous users, and some of the back-end information to insurance companies was wrong. Then came another hit: News organizations focused on Americans who had their bare-bones insurance plans canceled because they didn’t meet the health-care law’s new standards – which was contrary to the president’s often-repeated promise, “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” For two whole months, it was bad story after bad story for the administration. Since then, the federal website has substantially improved, and so has the number of Americans who have selected health plans in the state and federal exchanges. But the two months took a toll on Obama and Democrats: A December NBC/WSJ poll found the president’s disapproval rating (54%) at its highest level. And the Democrats’ 8-point edge in congressional preference turned into a 2-point advantage for Republicans (44%-42%).

Note: If our Top 10 list could go to 11 -- to borrow a phrase from "This is Spinal Tap" -- we'd add Pope Francis and his potential impact on American politics. As Time magazine and others have noted, his emphasis on economic issues (and de-emphasis on social ones) is a big, big story. The question is whether this has an impact on American politics and the Catholic Church inside the U.S.


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