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2013: The Year In Political Screw-Ups

The partial federal government shutdown was a political misstep that will be remembered for years to come.
Carolyn Kaster
The partial federal government shutdown was a political misstep that will be remembered for years to come.

If anything defined 2013, it was the political misstep. There were so many gaffes, flaps, scandals and ill-advised moves that voters were often left scratching their heads at the political class's uncanny knack for diminishing its profession.

Here are eight of the more memorable screw-ups:

The federal government shutdown — It seemed like a good idea at the time — or at least to the congressional Tea Party-aligned Republicans who didn't experience the political damage from the 1990s shutdowns. The goal of this year's 16-day partial government closure was defunding the Affordable Care Act; as the shutdown wore on, so did the confusion over the GOP aims.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., inadvertently captured the moment with this remark: "We have to get something out of this. And I'm not even sure what it is." In the end, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services estimated that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $24 billion, more or less — probably not what Stutzman had in mind.

Sen. Ted Cruz — The Texas Republican may have set a new record for how quickly a congressional newcomer can antagonize colleagues — and not just in the opposing party. Both in the Senate and the House, some fellow Republicans faulted him for goading House conservatives into a political dead end with the government shutdown.

But the greater sin, as far as many GOP lawmakers were concerned, was Cruz's acknowledgment — even before the shutdown began — that the tactic probably wouldn't work to defund Obamacare anyway. House Republicans weren't amused. Ditto for some GOP senators. The upshot, of course, is that Cruz burnished his Tea Party credentials and established himself as a potential force in 2016. But by burning so many bridges, it's questionable whether he can grow his base of support.

Red line — It's likely to be a long time before another president so publicly warns a rogue nation not to cross an imaginary boundary, as President Obama did with Syria. By putting the Syrian government on notice against using chemical weapons on its civilians only to have that government essentially ignore him, Obama painted himself into a corner: Make good on the implied threat or squander American prestige. In the end, divided opinion in the U.S. caused the president to punt the decision to Congress, where he was ultimately unable to win support for military action.

You can keep it — Obama first made his infamous promise regarding health care plans under the ACA during the 2008 campaign. But he repeated the vow into 2013, even after a growing number of critics pointed out its inaccuracy. Much of the steep drop in voter approval ratings for him can be attributed to the variance between the president's words and reality: PolitiFact dubbed the claim the "Lie of the Year." It's worth noting that in 2008 the same PolitiFact reported that the claim was true of his plan as he then described it during a presidential debate. But the eventual law wound up diverging significantly from his plan. — The federal website is a case study in how not to roll out a big government technology initiative. Considering how important ACA is to Obama's domestic policy legacy, it's still hard to understand how the administration let it run off the rails so thoroughly. This is a president committed to the idea that government can do big things, yet his administration's signature domestic project has only raised public doubts about government competence.

IRS scandal — The Internal Revenue Service and politics don't mix. Or at least they shouldn't because of the potential for abuse. (Think Richard Nixon.) Unfortunately, the federal law gave the IRS the authority to decide which political groups can legally claim tax-exempt status. Which led to IRS workers asking probing questions of Tea Party groups, among others. That raised suspicions that the agency was targeting some conservative groups for special scrutiny, causing more partisan hell to break loose.

Weiner, Filner, Radel & Ford — That might've made a good name for a law firm. Instead, these are the names of four politicians — Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner, Trey Radel and Rob Ford — whose antics have served to further taint the image of their chosen profession.

Weiner, the disgraced former congressman from New York, somehow thought that a run for New York City mayor was the path to redemption from a sexting scandal. His plan went wrong when it turned out that the behavior that forced his departure from Congress wasn't as far in his past as he had indicated. Filner, the former mayor of San Diego and an ex-congressman himself, turned out to be prolific sexual harasser. Radel is the Florida Republican congressman who was arrested in Washington for buying cocaine from an undercover officer. And Ford, Toronto's admitted crack-smoking, partying mayor, is still hanging on and dancing at City Council meetings though he's been stripped of much of his power. What all four men have in common, aside from embarrassing their constituents, is a reluctance to leave the public stage to deal with their inner demons.

Bridge-gate — If you close access lanes to the nation's busiest span, the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey, you'd better have a compelling reason. So far, GOP Gov. Chris Christie's now former appointees to the agency that controls the bridge have failed to provide one. That has fueled suspicions the lane closings were political retribution against the Fort Lee, N.J., mayor, who failed to endorse the governor's re-election. Christie has denied the charge of political motivation. But unless a solid reason for the closings emerges, this controversy will dog him as the 2016 presidential election cycle approaches.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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