2011 in Review: Hits and Misses

Liu Jin-Pool; Dennis Brack; Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Liu Jin-Pool; Dennis Brack; Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

So what have you resolved to do in the new year? Get yourself organized? Lose those Christmas pounds that somehow seem to have already attached themselves to the pounds you gained last Christmas? Spend more time with the family? How about finally taking a vacation (presumably with that family you just resolved to spend more time with)? It's the thought that counts, right?

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Believe it or not, there is a story, if not a history, behind the idea of making resolutions at the start of a new year. According to legend, the mythical Roman King Janus, for whom the month January is named, could both look to the past and see into the future and had the power to forgive minor transgressions. At the end of the year, Romans would exchange gifts or promise to atone for the year's mistakes in order to win Janus' forgiveness and blessings.

And thus the act of gift giving and the New Year's resolution were born! As we look back on the year that was 2011, some folks in Washington and in capitals around the globe may have more than a little atoning to do for their previous year's misdeeds. But before we resolve to do better in the new year, and in keeping with the tradition started by those Romans, let's take a quick look at the recent past to remember some of the events, people and images that have shaped our lives.

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And what a year it was — from the tragic (the January shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.) to the sublime (her return to the House floor to vote on raising the debt ceiling in August) to the ridiculous (President Obama having to release his long-form birth certificate, Harold Camping's doomsday predictions and Casey Anthony's not-guilty verdict); from the politically brave (Rep. Paul Ryan introducing a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's budget and Saudi Arabia granting women the right to vote) to the politically stupid (Rep. Anthony Weiner, IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Herman Cain resigning their posts or quitting their campaigns because of scandal) to the politically important (the killing of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Muammar Qaddafi; the Arab Spring protests and Occupy Wall Street).

Not to mention the floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and budget talks; the final mission of the space shuttle; the rebirth of the labor movement; and Lady Gaga dethroning Oprah Winfrey from the No. 1 spot on Forbes magazine's top 100 celebrities list! Yes, it was quite a year.

Of course, no reflection upon the past year would be complete without some superlatives:

The Best Political Move: Restructuring the Republican Primary Process

By making late primaries relevant again, the GOP has ensured that it will nominate the strongest candidate who demonstrates his or her mettle over the long run. Granted, Florida bucked the new rules and the current Republican National Committee leadership blinked instead of standing firm, but given the current jumbled field, if the old system was left in place and the earliest contests determined the race (which is why Florida cut in line), Republican voters would risk a severe case of buyer's remorse and the 2012 presidential election would become a mere formality (for some it already is).

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The Most Underrated Person: Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.)

He is the most effective governor in America, period. He also may be the smartest and the most politically adept — in what was once a solid Democratic state, no serious Democrat even bothered to challenge him for re-election. Just because some pundits claimed that Jindal once walked stiffly to the podium to deliver a speech — hardly a capital offense — and because he does his work far from the dysfunction of Washington, he does not get the attention he should. But he will.

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Honorable mention: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The toxic political atmosphere in Washington is like the weather — everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Wyden is a rare exception. A liberal Democrat, he has the courage to work with conservative Republicans like Paul Ryan and Dan Coats to fix our entitlement and tax mess, and doesn't care what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinks or how it will affect his fundraising. Smart and brave. A dangerous combination for the D.C. crowd, but a welcome one for the rest of us.

The Most Underreported Story: The Consequences of China's Power

Many news stories refer to China's economic growth, but few address what that will mean to the world. For more than 200 years, economic growth in America has been based on a model of political freedom, personal liberty, rule of law, democratic institutions and free markets. China presents a new model that is based on repressing individuals, not empowering them.

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Within decades, the world's biggest economy may be a place where there is no elected government, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion and no property rights of which to speak. We need to figure out how to avert that outcome, or at least understand what China's power means and how to deal with it.

Time magazine got it right. As I wrote in this space in December, "The truth is, both the grass roots of the right and the left in America are no longer pawns to be moved into position by the mere shouting of a word or pointing of a finger by a leader. Instead, these activists have become an inconvenience to those who think they hold the power." The same is true for those protesters emerging around the world — from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Libya and Yemen — who have grown weary of brutal dictatorships.

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The Biggest Loser of the Year: America's Youth

During the partisan bickering, finger-pointing and backbiting (and stabbing) on the budget, the debt, extensions of unemployment benefits and taxes, youth unemployment rose to near post-World War II highs. Lost in the noise is the reality that our children are the ones who will have to pay off more than $15 trillion of U.S. debt. Their lives will be fundamentally changed for the worse as a consequence of the decisions that this president and this Congress are making today. In short, our children will be working to build productive capacity and improve standards of living — not here in America, but for foreign creditors. 

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Now that we've reflected on 2011, here are some hopes and resolutions for 2012:

That the people of North Korea not be abandoned to a fate of oppression and starvation under a new leader who could very well rule for 60 years.

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That the world comes to know who Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is, and why he and others like him matter.

That our policy goals reflect the desire of moms and dads to provide an excellent education for their children.

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That the sanctity of human life at all stages be respected.

That we cherish our children, and that they, just once, clean their rooms without being asked.

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That when we sit on the couch, we reach for the phone to call a friend rather than for the TV remote.

That we exercise!

That the government stops meddling in housing markets, allowing them, and the economy, to heal.

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That you go to the zoo; if you don't have kids, take someone else's.

That South Sudan thrives, and its people live amid peace and plenty.

That we continue to thank our troops as they return safely home.

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC and can be found online at steeleforum.com.

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