Yet the ultimate verdict on the victors will come not from a single night of election returns but from the actions the winners take to remedy the nation’s economic ills and extricate it from two long and costly wars.
Picking Tuesday’s losers is easier: Republicans, their allies and their ideas.
That’s why we’ve flipped the winners-and-losers list below to read losers first, winners second and — as always — Hillary Rodham Clinton in a category all of her own.
She’s not exactly a loser, despite her humbling primary defeat. And she’s not quite a winner, even though she has erased most doubts about her commitment to the Obama cause and now enjoys a level of popularity she hasn’t seen since her White House days.
She’s a “neither,” or a “both.”
Others should be so lucky.
President Bush. Not to pile on, but his unpopularity probably doomed John McCain and has thrown the GOP into its worst identity crisis since 1964.
Steve Schmidt. McCain’s main strategist was brought in after a shake-up to hammer Obama hard every day, and he did that with gusto, hatching the highly effective “Celebrity” ad equating Obama with Paris Hilton. But McCain never seemed comfortable being an attack dog, and Schmidt’s mid-campaign testosterone boost turned off independents, young voters and women. Meanwhile, the base never believed the Arizona senator was one of their own — even when Schmidt succeeded in persuading McCain to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Schmidt is also largely responsible for cloistering McCain from the media, forcing the candidate to give up the straight talk give-and-take that defined him in his previous presidential run.
Rudy Giuliani. America’s mayor began the year as the Republican front-runner by making the case for the big-tent GOP approach. He ended it as a caustic Republican attack dog at a time when GOP partisanship has turned off the very independents Giuliani initially attracted. There are rumors he’s mulling a gubernatorial run, but his national reputation has taken a major hit, and his once-thriving consulting business is said to be in trouble.
ACORN. A huge national voter registration effort gave the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now a chance to shine on the national stage. Instead, ACORN’s sloppy oversight of voter registration efforts created a major embarrassment for Obama and other Democrats who had admired the group’s work on behalf of low-income tenants and blue-collar workers.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). The National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman was dealt a lousy hand, but the former casino executive didn’t play it particularly well, according to his fellow Republicans. He struggled to raise cash and sparked a last-minute firestorm by suggesting Palin wasn’t ready to govern.
Bill Kristol. The former Republican White House aide-turned-New York Times columnist was one of the loudest voices in favor of invading Iraq. And he was among the first to suggest Palin could be McCain’s savior. It proved to be a brilliant move. For about two weeks.
James Dobson. As pollster Peter Brown says, “Even evangelicals have 401(k)s.” Dobson, head of the powerful group Focus on the Family, was a dominant force in 2004 when Bush and Karl Rove fired up the conservative base by organizing around culture-war issues. Dobson’s opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage still resonate with many GOP voters, but he had far less impact in a year when Americans were more focused on the tanking economy.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). Loser, with a big caveat. Reid and other Senate Democrats were willing to tolerate Lieberman’s support of McCain — but Reid couldn’ abide the Connecticut independent’s appearance at the Republican convention, where he questioned Obama’s fitness to command. Reid has already called Lieberman to task, and insiders predict he’ll strip him of the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. But Democrats can’t go too far in their payback — they still need him on key issues, and his centrist philosophy still means he’s a factor in cloture votes.
Ronald Reagan. John McCain invoked the Great Communicator as his idol — and many in the GOP believe a return to Reagan-era conservative populism provides a path back to relevancy. (His visage still adorns the National Republican Congressional Committee’s home page.) But Democrats claim the economic crisis has called into question central tenets of The Gipper’s fiscal philosophy, including wide-ranging tax cuts, supply-side economics and deregulation.
The Axe Squad. Critics said they were too nice, too vague on the issues, too obsessed with the youth vote and too dependent on all those penny-ante Internet donors. But Obama’s core group of Chicago advisers, led by former reporter David Axelrod, has created a new paradigm for post-Rove campaigning. Instead of exploiting wedge issues (as Rove did) or micro-targeting demographic niche groups (as the Clintons and their pollster, Mark Penn, did), they focused on exciting a new base of young people, educated whites and minority voters. Get-out-the-vote wizard Steve Hildebrand built a hyperdisciplined field army. Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe gracefully parried questions about Obama’s race and experience. Communications chief Robert Gibbs oversaw a press operation that combined a Clinton-style rapid response team with a Bush-style aversion to off-message chatter and leaks.
Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Now they’ve got big fat new majorities. What will they do with them?
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). With moderate Republicans toppling in the House and Senate centrists such as Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) struggling to survive, the Maine Republican waxed her Democratic opponent by 22 points. Reid will have to woo Collins on every big social and economic policy if Senate Democrats want to hit 60 on major votes.
Michelle Obama. Remember when Democrats fretted she’d be her husband’s biggest liability? Or when GOP operative Roger Stone promised someone was about to release a devastating video of the first-lady-elect making racially charged comments to Louis Farrakhan? Instead she proved to be a forceful, funny, appealing surrogate.
Howard Dean. Dean may have screamed his presidential hopes away in 2004 and then underperformed as a party fundraiser, but Barack Obama won, more or less, using a new and improved edition of the DNC chairman’s playbook. Hillary Clinton’s aides derided Dean’s “50-state strategy,” but they were caught flat-footed when Obama’s neglect-no-state organization led to a February winning streak in sparsely populated caucus states, giving him an insurmountable delegate lead. Dean collected tens of millions of dollars over the Internet; Obama scooped up hundreds of millions and owned the airwaves in the campaign’s final days.
Andy Stern. The head of the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union — arguably the most powerful labor leader in the country — came out early for Obama. And he delivered on Election Day, especially in union-friendly western Pennsylvania. What does he want in return? Card check and health care reform. “During the first 100 days of the 111th Congress, we’re going to dedicate 50 percent of our staff and resources to passing priorities for working families like the Employee Free Choice Act and health care for all,” he wrote this summer in the Huffington Post.
FDR. He’s the new Reagan.
Martin Kady II contributed tothis story.