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12 stories that mattered in 2012

By Jonathan Bradley

With 2012 drawing to a close, here are 12 stories that defined American politics in 2012. 

January 3: Rick Santorum wins the Iowa Republican Caucus

That Rick Santorum played such a prominent role in this year's presidential contest says more about the current state of the Republican Party than any chance the former Pennsylvania senator had at the presidency. Santorum had the credentials — even though he tried to present himself as a sweater vest–clad rube, he possessed plenty of Washington pedigree — but he never had the support of the public outside of an increasingly irrelevent slice of religious conservatives. Although Santorum had moments of success — first with a narrow victory in Iowa and later with races in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri — he only ever offered his party the illusion that it might not have to settle for the ideological imperfection that was frontrunner Mitt Romney. In the end, Rick Santorum's great foe — reality — won out, and a Romney machine with much greater money, momentum, and support from the mass public finally saw off its last challenger.

February 16: House Republicans exclude Sandra Fluke from a committee hearing on contraception

When House Republicans arranged a hearing to discuss the Obama administration's new contraception regulations for workplace health plans, the panel they convened contained a curious omission: women. In fact, they excluded the one woman Democrats wanted as a witness, a law student at Georgetown University named Sandra Fluke. Fluke eventually presented her evidence at a later Democratic committee meeting and, in the process, attracted the ire of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who derided Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute". Fearful of angering the broadcaster's loyal listeners, Republican candidates were hesitant in their criticism; "It's not the language I would have used" was Romney's meek disavowal. From then on, Republicans struggled to convince women voters that the party could understand their interests. It didn't help that, during the general election campaign, GOP candidates for Senate Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock touted their anti-abortion credentials by making dismissive (and biologically and theologically bizarre) remarks about rape. Romney ended up losing female voters by eleven points

April 10: Rick Santorum suspends campaign

Rick Santorum's presidential campaign never really got off the ground, and it was long gone by the time he officially pulled the plug on it after losses in crucial Midwestern states cast doubt about his ability to compete outside the South. The real significance of the end of the Santorum campaign was that it allowed Mitt Romney to finally claim the mantle of Republican standard bearer. After five years of effectively non-stop campaigning for the party's nomination, Romney had seen off the last of his serious challengers — Ron Paul didn't suspend his campaign for another month — and could turn his attention to unseating President Barack Obama. Romney's candidacy was historic — he was the first Mormon on a major party presidential ticket — and potentially competitive — he was a successful businessman and had governed a blue state — but Romney spent the summer stumbling from gaffe to gaffe. He had trouble consolidating the support of his base, who suspected him of being an undercover moderate, and he had to continue attending to idologues and big donors long after most candidates would have begun courting the centre.

May 9: Barack Obama announces his support for same-sex marriage

Joe Biden let it slip early when he told Meet the Press that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gays and lesbians having the same marriage rights as straights — the problem was that the president's position was one far from absolute comfort. Three days later, Obama finished evolving on the issue and affirmed that he supported same-sex marriage rights. His new position didn't lead to any substantive change in US policy — though the Justice Department will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court — but Obama's shifting stance signalled a vast shift in American opinion on gay rights. In 2004, Republicans believed their opposition to gay marriage helped secure President George W. Bush a second term. Eight years later, it seemed certain that Obama would be the last Democratic president who would ever be opposed to gay marriage — and the first to support it.

June 5: Scott Walker survives recall election

Wisconsin Democrats were thrilled when they collected enough signatures to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who in 2011 had passed legislation restricting collective bargaining rights for Badger State public employees. The battle following the passage of those laws — which featured union members occupying the state house in Madison and legislators fleeing to neighbouring Illinois to prevent the state senate from forming a quorum — was the first hint since the 2008 election of Barack Obama that Democrats could match the Tea Party in terms of organisational energy. Citizens of Wisconsin, however, were not as enthused as Democrats, and responded to having to return to the polls less than two years after their last gubernatorial election by voting Walker back in. Republicans read the results as a show of support for their agenda and hoped they might be able to turn the state red in the November presidential election. It wasn't to be though: Wisconsin remained blue, as it had for the six presidential contests previous. 

June 28: Supreme Court upholds Obamacare

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, legal observers considered suggestions the law might be unconstitutional to be the most absurd kind of fringe thinking — conspiracy-minded comfort for Republicans who hadn't been able to hold up the bill through legislative action. It's testament to the hard work of conservative and libertarian scholars that, two years later, there was very real doubt as to whether the Supreme Court would permit the law to stand at all. At issue was whether Congress's power to legislate interstate commerce allowed it to require Americans to buy health insurance — the "individual mandate". The Court's decision, with five justices in favour, was that the Commerce Clause permitted Congress to do no such thing — but that the law was valid anyway, because the Constitution allowed Congress to levy taxes. The majority opinion, concocted by Chief Justice John Roberts was as unexpected as it was unusual — so much so that a confused CNN jumped the gun and reported incorrectly that the law had been struck down. Although the Court also decided that the Medicare funding expansion included in the act was illegitimate, President Obama's signature legislative achievement remained the law of the land and is set to apply nationwide from 2014.

July 20: Mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado

An early morning screening of the newly released Batman movie turned nightmarish in a Denver area cinema, when a man dressed in combat armour and throwing tear gas grenades shot 12 people to death and injured 59 more. The assault revived America's seemingly unending debate over how to balance gun rights and public safety, particularly when the weeks and months following the Aurora attack saw similar shooting rampages in Wisconsin, Oregon, and, in December, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The massacre in Connecticut, which claimed the lives of twenty children and six adults, precipitated demands from gun control advocates for politicians to act to prevent such tragedies, and with a tin-eared response from the National Rifle Association and growing public outrage, 2013 seems the best chance in a long time the US has of passing new gun control legislation. Nonetheless, gun rights retain a strong place in American culture and large, highly organised political constituencies remain determined to protect what they consider their intrinsic right to self defence. There is no guarantee the United States can pass new gun control legislation, or even if it does, that it will prevent these horrific mass killings from happening again.

August 27: Republican National Convention begins in Tampa

Democrats spent the summer attacking Mitt Romney, and the presumptive GOP nominee gave them a helping hand with a series of widely discussed gaffes, but the campaign proper didn't start until the end of August with the Republican National Convention. The summer silliness didn't end though; Republicans seemed to have organised their shindig around an off-hand Obama comment that seemed to imply business owners should credit the government for their success. "You didn't build that" outraged only the right wing base, but the base got plenty of mileage out of its outrage. Other things the base enjoyed: veep pick Paul Ryan's scathing attack on the Obama administration, even if it was widely derided as untruthful. But the 2012 Republican convention will be best remembered for Clint Eastwood's bizarre and rambling denunciation of an invisible President Obama, symbolised by an empty chair. By contrast, the following week's Democratic convention was far more professional, and, even with excellent speeches from Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, far less memorable.

September 11: Terrorists attack US diplomatic mission in Benghazi

Four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, were killed when a group of heavily armed militants attacked the US consulate in Benghazi. What at first seemed to be an anti-US protest that got out of control turned out to be a well co-ordinated terrorist attack, and Republicans smelled an opportunity. Congressional investigations into an administration cover-up proved fruitless, but   the GOP did claim one scalp: UN ambassador Susan Rice was forced to withdraw herself from contention for Secretary of State when Republicans began to suspect her televised comments on the attack downplayed the terrorist connection. (Rice had been speaking from CIA-prepared talking points.) Much less explored by the investigation was whether any failures in diplomatic security contributed to the attack.

October 3: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debate in Denver

A little more than a month out from the election, the Romney presidential campaign seemed like it might be over before it had begun. President Obama rode high on strong polling after a successful Democratic National Convention, and recriminations were already being thrown around by Republicans readying themselves for defeat. That all changed after the two candidates met on equal footing for the first time at a debate in Denver, Colorado. An ill-prepared Obama looked sleepy and uninterested, and Mitt Romney was the precise opposite: he appeared authoritative, moderate, likeable, and competent. Obama supporters despaired (Andrew Sullivan fretted "Did Obama Just Throw the Election Away?") and Republicans rallied, as did the Romney polling numbers. A consensus emerged: this debate was a game-changer. Left little noticed was the inconvenient fact that Obama's poll lead had already begun to drop away before the debate began; RealClearPolitics had the Romney resurgence as beginning September 30.

November 6: Barack Obama wins a second term

In the end, the 2012 election played out exactly as expected. First term presidents usually win a second; Obama did. Challengers usually struggle to unseat a leader presiding over a growing economy; even though growth was sluggish, Romney couldn't. The polls showed Obama would triumph; he did. If there was any surprise from the contest, it was that it wasn't closer. Obama ended up with a winning margin of nearly four points — less than his seven point margin in 2008, but more than George W. Bush's second term edge of 2.4 per cent. Perhaps the explanation lay in what is a growing source of Republican concern: America's changing demographics. Romney polled poorly among women, young, and non-white voters — and the US isn't set to grow older, whiter, or more male any time in the near future. The question now is whether a party that saw such fruitless results from tetchy, obstructionist conservatism can change for the future or will it grow even more purist and extreme in response?  

December 31: America readies itself to go over the fiscal cliff

Unless Congress and President Obama can cut a deal in the next 24 hours or so, the United States will start 2013 with a swathe of new taxes and spending cuts automatically going into effect. Such a large fiscal shock to the economy would push the country back into recession, and it would be entirely self-inflicted. The spending cuts are the result of sequestration — a series of unpleasant defence and entitlement cuts Congress agreed to last year in an attempt to force itself to find a better way of reducing the deficit — and tax increases, 98 per cent of which almost everyone in Congress wants to continue. Fortunately, the economic destruction will come on slowly, even after the new year, and can still be avoided. In fact, going over the cliff will likely make it easier for Congress to come to a deal. 2013 might not be as grim for America as the dying days of 2012 make it look. 

31 December 2012