These new arrivals on the national stage — relative unknowns who burst onto the scene, behind-the-scenes players who suddenly took on high-profile roles, politicians who took their act beyond their state’s borders — made 2008 a livelier, more engaging political year and seem likely to continue shaping the political environment for better or for worse.
Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska): Palin was a significant political figure in her own right before 2008, but in the span of just a few months the former Wasilla mayor exploded onto the national scene to become the first woman nominated for national office by the Republican Party and one of the most controversial political figures in the country.
Her introduction to the public wasn’t as smooth as it could have been: after a dazzling performance at the Republican National Convention, a series of campaign-trail missteps diminished Palin’s electoral appeal. But the GOP base never stopped loving Palin, and despite her ticket’s defeat, the Alaska governor remains an enormously popular conservative who’s poised to help determine the future of the party.
Caroline Kennedy: The last living child of President John F. Kennedy, the 51-year-old Manhattanite emerged from her famously private lifestyle in late January, authoring a New York Times op-ed endorsing Obama for president.
A joint endorsement rally with her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), followed a day later, vaulting Caroline into the front lines of the presidential campaign. After the end of the Democratic primaries, she headed up Obama’s vice presidential selection process with Attorney General-designate Eric Holder and spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Now she’s reportedly a leading contender for the Senate seat Clinton will vacate when she takes up her new post at the State Department. Quite a debut, even for a Kennedy.
David Plouffe: An unlikely celebrity, the Obama campaign manager usually attracts distinctly un-glitzy adjectives like “soft-spoken” and “camera-shy.” But as the operations guy behind the Obama phenomenon, Plouffe cultivated a reputation as a no-nonsense political chess master.
Plouffe won’t take a position within the administration, though he may continue to play a role shaping Obama’s movement outside the White House. He is, however, cashing in: he’s already signed on with Washington Speakers Bureau and is penning a future bestseller, tentatively titled “The Audacity to Win.”
Sen.-elect Kay Hagan (D-N.C.): Few expected this obscure state legislator to have much of a shot against a political titan like Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Sure, Hagan was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s anointed candidate, but most political prognosticators expected her campaign would fall short in the end.
But after winning her party’s nomination in May, Hagan proved an adept fundraiser and relentlessly attacked Dole as an out-of-touch Washington insider. By the fall, Hagan was surging, and when Dole blasted back with ads linking Hagan to an atheist group it backfired. Hagan won by nine points.
In a non-presidential year, Hagan would likely have attracted more attention as a political giant-killer. Hagan will have to settle for a humbler title: United States senator.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.): Like Palin, Corker held high office before 2008. But it wasn’t until the Senate’s showdown over a proposed auto industry bailout that the former Chattanooga mayor distinguished himself as a serious player on the Hill.
Drawing praise from the GOP leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as well as from Democrats like Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Corker took the lead in shaping the Republican counterproposal to Democrats’ aid plan for Detroit.
His performance over the last month – which even a partisan like Durbin conceded was “magnificent” – makes him one of the few Republicans who looks better after November 4 than he did before, standing out as a possible future leader in a party that’s been largely decapitated.
Meg Whitman: The former eBay CEO only left her corporate post some nine months ago. But thanks to her work on behalf of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s primary campaign, and the McCain-Palin ticket in the general election, Whitman’s on her way to becoming a significant national political figure.
Though Palin ultimately took the prize, Whitman was buzzed about for the vice presidency after McCain listed her among the three wisest people he knew (the other two were Gen. David Petraeus and Democratic Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis). Whitman also delivered a solid, if unmemorable speech at the Republican National Convention.
She’s now eyeing the 2010 California governor’s race, and with her business background and deep pockets Whitman has a real shot. If she were elected governor of the most-populous state in the nation, Whitman would immediately be find herself on the short list of Republican presidential contenders.
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (D-Del.): During the Democratic convention, few speakers inspired as much on-air swooning as son of the now vice president-elect, Joe Biden. CNN’s David Gergen called Beau Biden’s address a “remarkably good speech” and “a home run.”
The 39-year-old state official was deployed to Iraq in October as part of a Delaware National Guard unit. When he comes back, he’ll have the chance to put his famous name to use when his father’s Senate seat comes up for a special election in 2010. He hasn’t said that he’ll seek the job, but Joe Biden made his own preferences clear by engineering the appointment of a placeholder for the seat.
“It is no secret that I believe my son, Attorney General Beau Biden, would make a great United States senator, just as I believe he has been a great attorney general,” Biden said in a statement after his longtime aide, Ted Kaufman, was tapped for the seat in November.
Gov. David Paterson (D-N.Y.): When Paterson was elected lieutenant governor in 2006, New York’s political class viewed him to be a senator-in-waiting, ready to step up in the event Hillary Clinton won the presidency. An affable political operator with a wry sense of humor, Paterson was expected to spend a term or two in former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s shadow until the crusading former prosecutor decided to go national.
That plan didn’t quite work out. Spitzer resigned in disgrace after a personal scandal, leaving Paterson in charge. Paterson, it seems, had a few of his own skeletons in the closet. Fresh off revelations of his own personal indiscretions, Paterson was then confronted by the Wall Street crisis, which has left New York’s budget in a shambles. Now he finds himself at the center of the succession spectacle over Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck: This slot might actually be an ensemble prize given to the entire cast of “The View,” the women’s chat show which emerged this year as morning television’s most entertaining and unlikely forum for political debate.
But if there’s one member of the show’s cast who stood out, it was former “Survivor” contestant-turned-conservative pundit Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Cut from a different mold than your typical right-of-center talking head, Hasselbeck frequently clashed with her considerably more liberal co-hosts, including the venerable Barbara Walters, by defending the McCain-Palin campaign. In October, Hasselbeck went so far as to campaign with the GOP vice presidential candidate in Florida.
If there were any doubts about her stature as a rising GOP pundit, they were dispelled last week. After complaining on air that she didn’t receive an invitation this year’s White House Christmas party, Hasselbeck promptly received a apology from the White House. It turned out she had been invited but her invitation did not arrive on time.
Rachel Maddow: Since taking over the 9 p.m. slot on MSNBC, Maddow has posted strong ratings by finally giving liberal cable-watchers the show they’ve always wanted. Less combative than Chris Matthews and less self-righteous than Keith Olbermann, the former Rhodes Scholar has defined herself as a thoughtful, sharp – and sharp-tongued – host who presents her perspective on the news without being cranky, gimmicky and repetitive.
For Maddow, as for all liberal commentators, the question is how she’ll keep her audience engaged without the Bush administration serving as a foil. Judging from her quick start, it’s a good bet she’ll figure out a way.