The Biggest Politics Stories of 2013

The year in review, from the editors of The Atlantic's Politics Channel

The year dawned with optimism. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats found common ground on gun control and long-awaited immigration reform. A triumphant President Obama had won reelection and his signature law would soon take effect. As 2013 closes, it's hard to even remember those heady days. It was one of the least productive years in history on Capitol Hill. The Obama Administration was buffeted by a surveillance scandal and its own failure to smoothly implement the Affordable Care Act. Yet the year was far from inconsequential. Here are 2013's biggest stories in politics.

—Molly Ball, David A. Graham, Garance Franke-Ruta, and Conor Friedersdorf

Edward Snowden Shakes the Surveillance State

The biggest news story of 2013 began with one man's decision: NSA contractor Edward Snowden left a comfortable life in Hawaii in May, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, and turned thousands of classified documents over to journalists, blowing the whistle on a global system of mass surveillance still making headlines all over the world. "So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision," he told an interviewer, explaining his motives. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that's a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of 'governing in the dark,' where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input."

Snowden is now in Russia, where he was stranded when the United States revoked his passport. His long-term fate has yet to be determined: He has sought both another country to give him political asylum and requested a grant of clemency from the United States.

The Republican Party's Civil War


After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, many Republicans seemed to wake up to a different America: a country where the polls are accurate and the electorate is more diverse than ever. A period of admirably honest soul-searching ensued as the party confronted this new reality. In March, a committee of insiders convened by the Republican National Committee urged the party to pass immigration reform and soften its rhetoric toward gays and minorities.

But the reform push would prove short-lived. By summer, the party’s conservative grassroots was pushing back hard, egged on by the Heritage Foundation (led by former Senator Jim DeMint) and several Tea Party groups. Texas Senator Ted Cruz became the standard-bearer for the groups’ demand that Congress refuse to approve federal government funding until implementation of Obamacare was halted.

Senior Republicans warned it was a fool’s errand, and sure enough, the gambit failed, resulting in a 17-day government shutdown that pushed public opinion of the GOP lower than ever (while achieving none of conservatives' policy goals). A conservative Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, lost the Virginia governor’s race in November, while the crusading pragmatist Chris Christie was handily reelected in New Jersey. At year’s end, the Tea Party and establishment wings of the GOP were still at loggerheads.

The Government Shuts Down

President Obama once assured supporters that his reelection would break the GOP “fever” and get Republicans to cooperate with him. The proof his opponents were still overheated came in October, when a small battalion of House Republicans shut down the government. The saga began with conservatives' determination to either repeal, defund, or delay Obamacare as a condition of funding the government. Egged on by Senator Ted Cruz, a small band of House Republicans portrayed anything less as capitulation. House Speaker John Boehner, anxious to maintain unity and keep his job, declined to hold a vote on a funding bill without such conditions. At midnight on October 1, federal agencies, national parks, and other services closed their doors.

But despite conservatives’ hopes (and liberals’ fears), Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to give in. Meanwhile, another deadline loomed: The debt ceiling would be reached on October 17. The prospect of default finally forced Republicans' hand, and a deal was reached to reopen the government and raise the debt limit. Republicans got practically nothing for their stand save battered reputations (just as many had predicted): The agreement funded the government into January, raised the debt ceiling until February, and mandated a budget conference. Obamacare, meanwhile, stood unscathed—until shocking rollout failures did far more damage than the GOP ever could, and helped to revive the Republican Party’s political fortunes.

Obamacare's Catastrophic Rollout

How's this for a plan: Require citizens to purchase a product through a website that's down more than half the time and has epically slow page-load times and an astounding error rate. Oh—and a substantial portion of the back end of the site hasn't even been built, so who knows if your transaction has gone through when you're done? But hey, it's better than paying a fine, right? This, in a nutshell, is the proposition the Obama Administration—through a combination of neglect and poor management—posed to voters in introducing the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges, a central part of the president's signature legislative achievement. No great surprise, then, than his poll numbers, riding high in the wake of the Republican-backed government shutdown, quickly plummeted to the lowest levels of his presidency. The decline in support was particularly acute among key Democratic constituencies such as Hispanics, Millennials, and working-class white women.

From Guns to Immigration, Gridlock on Capitol Hill


It’s hard to remember now, but 2013 dawned rather hopefully in Congress. The so-called “fiscal cliff” had been resolved without bloodshed, giving lawmakers another few months to avert the clumsy “sequestration” cuts to federal spending, and seeming to break Republican resistance to agreeing to raise taxes. Bipartisan teams were earnestly at work on compromise legislation to address two of the president’s priorities, gun control and immigration reform. It looked like it might be the Year of the Thaw.

Instead, it quickly turned into the Year Nothing Got Done. The sequestration deadline came and went without progress, forcing cuts to Head Start programs and furloughs of Defense Department employees. The bipartisan bill to increase background checks for gun purchases ran aground on the implacable opposition of the National Rifle Association and failed to garner 60 votes in the Senate. Immigration reform passed the Senate by a wide margin, then went nowhere in the House, though leaders continue to promise action—eventually. The budget stalemate got so bad that the government shut down, and the Senate bottleneck for presidential appointees so frustrated Democrats that they invoked the long-feared “nuclear option.”

In the waning days of 2013, House and Senate leaders reached a new budget deal, prompting another outbreak of optimism. But if the last year is any guide, don’t get your hopes up for a new dawn in Washington.

The Justices Strike Down the Defense of Marriage Act

It was an amazing year for gay rights, as changes that began to sweep the nation in 2012 were extended and a more-than-decade-long fight finally resolved. In June, the Supreme Court in June finally overturned 1996's anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, making plaintiff Edie Windsor into a hero and setting the stage for a slew of administrative changes to recognize same-sex marriages at the federal level. States, in their turn, have taken advantage of the surge in public support for same-sex marriages to rewrite their laws. At the start of the year, same sex marriage was legally sanctioned in nine states; that number had increased to 16 by years' end. Critically, five of those states accomplished the change through their legislatures, not through a court decision. But same-sex marriage remains barred by law in 33 states.

The Invisible Primary Begins

When one presidential election ends, another begins. And so, with President Obama’s reelection in 2012, both parties’ most ambitious personalities began to look ahead to 2016—stealthily, of course, and while pretending not to.

Most of the action has been on the Republican side, as the jockeying became a playing field for the party’s ongoing identity crisis. Florida Senator Marco Rubio staked his political reputation on brokering immigration reform, which many GOP elites hoped could save the party, but the please-no-one compromises of the final bill and the taint of Washington dealmaking seemed to damage him instead. Rand Paul of Kentucky enjoyed a burst of acclaim for his filibuster over drone policy, and his libertarian bent seemed in vogue after the controversies surrounding the IRS and domestic surveillance; he made frequent pilgrimages to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to build activist support. But the Tea Partiers who craved aggressive confrontation with Obama seemed to find an even purer champion in Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who performed his own quasi-filibuster of the healthcare bill’s implementation and surged to right-wing celebrity status. The Republicans who fear Cruz would lead the party off a cliff got their own champion in November, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie surged to a landslide reelection and touted his victory as proof the party could succeed with a less polarizing message.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton left her post as secretary of state and embarked on a carefully calibrated itinerary of speaking engagements, giving few interviews and making few political statements. Her supporters weren’t waiting for her to commit: A super PAC, Ready for Hillary, began hoovering up donations and high-profile commitments in advance. Even as early polls showed a vast majority of Democrats enthusiastic about a Clinton candidacy, some restive Democrats pined for more options, and a boomlet emerged around the crusading liberal Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

A Progressive Renaissance


A series of triumphs—both at the ballot box and in old-fashioned politicking—suggest the left may have fresh grassroots strength. New York Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio won Gracie Mansion in November with a shockingly high margin, signaling a new era for a city tired of well-heeled centrism. In September, Larry Summers withdrew from consideration to be chairman of the Federal Reserve, after a campaign against him, paving the way for Janet Yellen's appointment. And while she may not be running for president, Senator Elizabeth Warren's populist liberalism has helped energize and define the progressive movement, making her a next-generation leader for liberals who want their party to take on Wall Street, instead of just taking its money.

The Libertarian Moment


Though the Tea Party lost 2013 fights on Obamacare and the debt ceiling, there are ways in which libertarians enjoyed unusual success this year. The most remarkable feature of Rand Paul's anti-drone filibuster last spring wasn't that the Kentucky senator would, like his father, issue warnings about the War on Terrorism threatening our liberty, or even that he managed to get the White House to respond. What's remarkable was the faction of Republicans and Democrats who stood beside him: For once, prominent movement conservatives and progressives were advancing a common liberty-friendly critique. Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA spying gave them another issue on which to cooperate. Meanwhile, longtime libertarian opposition to marijuana prohibition finally went mainstream in 2013, with a majority of Americans supporting legalization for the first time ever. But libertarians are no closer to seizing power than they've ever been—as with every libertarian moment, 2013's occurred when some leading Republicans and Democrats began co-opting issues where public opinion aligned with libertarian concerns.

The End of the Voting Rights Act?


The 2012 election cycle was awful for electoral reformers, as voter suppression became a favorite tool in trying to stop Barack Obama. Yet somehow 2013 was even worse. In a 5-4 decision released in June, the Supreme Court struck down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark law enacted in 1965 and reauthorized by huge bipartisan majorities in 2006. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that historical discrimination no longer justified Section 5 of the law, which forced certain jurisdictions—mostly Southern states—to “preclear” changes to voting laws with the Department of Justice. Almost immediately, Texas, Mississippi, and North Carolina, which had been subject to preclearance, began enacting new, stricter voting laws that tend to have disproportionate impact on minorities and the poor. It’s no coincidence that these states are Republican-led and those minority voters tend to vote Democratic. This battle isn’t remotely over. More states are considering voter ID laws and other measures, while the Obama Justice Department has sought to challenge laws in court using tools other than Section 5.