US President Barack Obama.
Credit: Jewel Samad

Oh what a year it was!

Barely had the nation’s celebratory New Year’s hangover subsided when another headache hit the public consciousness: the Iowa caucuses, on Jan. 3, signaling the official start of the presidential campaign. It kicked off a year of finger pointing, backbiting, mudslinging and name-calling.

Not that we weren’t warned. The Republican primary debates, which began in May 2011, told us everything we needed to know about the coming battle: namely, that it would behoove us all to move to Canada.  

Just think back to the foreign policy discussion, in which the eight candidates tried to outdo each other in hostility and aggression to the outside world. In just under 90 minutes, they had, variously, invaded Iran, cut off all foreign aid to Pakistan, reinstituted waterboarding and started a trade war with China.

Remember Rick Perry’s “brain freeze” moment, when he could not think of the three government agencies he wanted to cut, or Ron Paul’s repeated calls to “end the Fed.

If that doesn’t convince you that the political process has become hopelessly bizarre, take a look at Newt Gingrich trying to come up with a plan to make the moon a state.

It was at the Iowa caucuses that Justin, a student from the University of Iowa, summed up the Republican position months before it became official: “It’s more a case of ‘hold your nose and vote for Romney’,” he said.

As the primary contests progressed, the candidates began dropping like flies. Herman Cain, the pizza magnate and occasional star of late-night comedy TV, was forced out early over allegations of sexual harassment.

Michele Bachman wisely saw her miserable performance in Iowa as a sign, and quietly withdrew; Rick Perry followed suit. John Huntsman did not last past the New Hampshire primary, and the two who actually showed signs of life, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, bowed to the inevitable in April.

That left Mitt Romney the last man standing, and he set about his task with fervor.

The summer was a blur of negative advertising and national soul-searching.

The shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July, which left 12 dead and dozens more wounded, shocked the nation but failed to set off a debate on gun control. To the discredit of both candidates, neither side wanted to touch an explosive topic that could only further divide a bitterly polarized nation.

Once Romney had “presumptive” tacked on to his status as candidate, attention turned to his possible choices for running mate. Brief flirtations with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio’s Rob Portman faded, giving way to a young economic hotshot from Wisconsin. Paul Ryan promised tough love on spending and frightened seniors with his talk of Medicare vouchers.

But aside from an outrageous Democratic political ad in which “Ryan” threw Granny over a cliff, there was nothing funny about the VP hopeful. Dourly sincere and somewhat preachy, he failed to sway the electorate despite his dreamy blue eyes and admirable physique.

The conventions signaled both the highs and lows of the campaign. Clint Eastwood provided the meme of the summer, with his sclerotic “empty chair” speech in Tampa, and Bill Clinton very nearly stole the show from President Barack Obama at the Democrats’ shindig in Charlotte.

Just after Labor Day the campaign began in earnest. Two months of unremitting negativity followed: Romney was a predatory capitalist who drove workers to the poorhouse or the grave, while Obama was an irresponsible lightweight who was not quite American enough to lead such an “exceptional” nation.

The only people enjoying the spectacle were the fact checkers, who worked overtime running down the howlers that each campaign put out.

“Four Pinocchios” screamed the Washington Post after a Romney ad claimed that Chrysler was planning on making all its Jeeps in China.

“Pants on fire” retorted Politifact, after misleading statements by Obama regarding Romney’s position on abortion.

As Election Day approached, the nation held its breath. It was going to be close, the pundits moaned. The election machines were rigged, complained analysts in several swing states.

Mother Nature weighed in on Oct. 29, sending Frankenstorm Sandy landward just days before the poll. No one had time for the campaign when millions of Americans were fighting for their lives and their homes.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said it best: "I have a job to do. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don't know me."

Christie may have ruined his chances of ever becoming a Republican presidential nominee with his praise of the president at a difficult time, but he gave his stricken state some much-needed support.

Nov. 6 came and went, giving Obama a surprisingly comfortable win, and Romney an extremely bitter loss. The Republican challenger had been so confident of victory that he did not even have a concession speech prepared.

But Obama’s triumph did not translate into relief for a beleaguered nation. No sooner was the confetti swept up than an angry, bitter debate over the “fiscal cliff” began. With economic disaster looming, Congress once again became a battleground, with the political parties retreating to their trenches, each accusing the other of intransigence and irresponsible behavior.

The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus, in the wake of a disappointingly tawdry sex scandal, provided a brief respite, but soon the endless debates over taxes, spending cuts and partisan gridlock began anew.

The year ended even more grimly than it began, with the tragic deaths of 20 young children and six of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, also killed his mother, Nancy, before beginning his rampage at the school. He then took his own life as police closed in.

This time the debate over gun control moved front and center. With no election hanging over the politicians’ heads, they felt free to speak out. Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to research the issue and come up with a plan; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) vowed to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons on the first day of the new Congress.

Gun enthusiasts warned that it would not help; the best solution, according to National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre, would be more guns, this time in every school.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said LaPierre at a press conference following the shooting.

The fight is once again progressing along party lines, with the Democrats largely in favor of gun control, the Republicans opposing it. Not even a major national trauma, it seems, can stop the partisan bickering.

The only thing to do is to hold on tight and hope against hope for a better 2013.

Happy New Year!

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