New Year’s is a hinge where one year swings closed and another swings open. Before the door closes on 2013, let’s look back on the stories that have caught us up, both close to home and in the wide world. Tomorrow, we’ll peer through the doorway into 2014.
Vermonters are probably more at peace with the world close to home than they are with events at a distance. As the year ended, the near universal judgment was that the federal government had become subject to an unprecedented sort of political paralysis. Republican strategy had proceed to its logical conclusion, shutting down the government and shining a light on the poverty of Republican ideas and their capacity and willingness to destroy. The public is catching on. Republican methods have made the party deeply unpopular, except in those deeply Republican districts where diehard conservatives are able to cultivate tea party fervor.
The Democrats have had problems of their own. President Obama strengthened his position by refusing to give in to Republican blackmail on Obamacare, the debt ceiling and the budget. But the flawed launch of health care websites, by the federal government and the states, raised questions about the workability of Obama’s signature legislation.
Obama’s popularity faded in the fall because of a confluence of events that cast doubt on his leadership. It turned out he had been asleep at the wheel on health care, forcing him to get tough and reorganize the project. In foreign affairs, too, he appeared to be flailing about, searching for the correct response to the most serious international challenge he has faced: Syria.
And yet in typical Obama fashion, he has managed to pivot on a dime, transforming what could have been a major failure into what may become a comprehensive historic transformation.
Obama had laid down a red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, so when it became apparent that the regime of Bashar Assad had used them, Obama felt compelled to respond with force. But he found little support in Congress and even from his number one ally, Great Britain. At the last minute, he grabbed onto a proposal from Russia that would require Syria to give up all its chemical weapons. It was a messy process with a successful outcome. But it was only part of what was happening in the region.
An opening with Iran under the leadership of the new president, Hassan Rouhani, has led to a possible rapprochement that could affect the entire region in a positive way. Peace with Iran could negate its nuclear weapons program but also help foster peace in Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians. Successful negotiations with Iran could be one of the greatest accomplishments of Obama’s two terms.
Vermont is a happier place, not plagued by the political dysfunction afflicting Washington. One reason is one-party dominance that has placed governing responsibility with Democrats. Thus, it is among Democrats that some of the important divisions have occurred. The Legislature has had to curb the appetite of Gov. Peter Shumlin to slash benefits for working Vermonters and the poor. Shumlin has had to curb the Legislature’s willingness to raise new taxes.
One of the major news events of the year in Vermont was the decision by Entergy Corp. to close down Vermont Yankee, ending decades of conflict and controversy, creating a threat to the prosperity of Windham County. The state had been losing its legal battles with Yankee, but Entergy decided nevertheless that in the present market the plant was not a money-maker.
Meanwhile, energy — wind, solar, natural gas — remains one of the greatest policy challenges.
Shumlin, like Obama, has had to wrestle with the designers of the state’s health care website. He called questions about its potential troubles a “nothing-burger” — his most colorful quote of the year. Even after the website was allegedly fixed, people were spending hours navigating their way toward coverage.
As the door opens on a new year, the success, or its lack, of health care websites across the country will be an important story. Of course, the stories for next year will be many and also surprising.
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