Our Best Stuff From a Year We Won’t Forget. As Much as We Might Want To.
January 6, COVID, Afghanistan, and more.
Remember all the memes and jokes about how awful 2020 was, and how 2021 was going to be so much better? Things would be back to normal. Workers would return to offices, kids would go back to school, we could make good on all the travel plans that we’d put on hold. Most important, we’d stop losing people to a vicious virus that had upended our lives.
Well, I recently saw a meme that sums up how well that turned out. I’m not going to dive down a Facebook rabbit hole looking for it, but it read, “Before I agree to 2022, I’m going to need to see the terms and conditions.” Yes, please. And maybe I’ll have a lawyer review the contract.
As far as the pandemic went, 2021 was in some ways much better than 2020. We had vaccines. By spring, most kids had some form of in-person learning. A lot of us tried to resume “normal life” as much as possible. But it felt like it was always one step forward, two steps back.
People kept dying, hospitals in various states became or have recently become overwhelmed, and new variants emerged.
But it wasn’t just the pandemic. The year was only days old when a violent mob attacked the Capitol in hopes of overturning the 2020 election and somehow—as far-fetched as it seems even now—keep Donald Trump in power. That led to another impeachment, another trial, and caused continuing chaos within the Republican Party.
We also had to get used to a new occupant in the White House, and were we ever in for a surprise. Joe Biden ran a fairly centrist campaign, offering himself as an alternative to uber-progressive Bernie Sanders. Once in office, though, he attempted to govern like FDR, offering up a series of costly progressive initiatives like free community college, universal pre-K, subsidized childcare, and more. That caused plenty of infighting among congressional Democrats, as moderates were leery of so much spending and progressives were in no mood for compromise. To paraphrase Tolstoy: All functional political parties are alike. All dysfunctional parties are dysfunctional in their own ways.
And then, of course, there was Afghanistan. I have a fairly long section below on that and don’t want to repeat myself. But it was horrifying to see the images of the Taliban trying to keep Afghans from reaching the Kabul airport, and heartbreaking to watch babies and toddlers essentially crowdsurf their way to the front, where American soldiers stationed on the airport perimeter lifted them to safety.
The last week of the year is a time for publications to roll out listicles documenting their best/most read/favorite stories of the year. We did a tremendous amount of work that we’re very proud of, and I would need days to list all of the pieces that are worth rereading. And I kinda hate listicles. So as I look back on the year, I’ve started by looking at how we covered the biggest stories of the year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of our fact checkers, Alec Dent and Khaya Himmelman, who worked tirelessly debunking election and pandemic misinformation, among other topics. Lucky for you, though, they did their own year in review. If you need any reminders about what a weird year it was, give it a read.
And as much as we probably all feel cautious about being too optimistic about the new year, we here at The Dispatch are really looking forward to 2022. We’re still growing and we are excited to bring you new newsletters and podcasts and more in-depth reporting and commentary. The Sweep, our campaign newsletter, is evolving and will be part of an expanded Dispatch Politics section for starters. Look for more announcements soon.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank all of you who read our work, participate in our community, and provide vital feedback. You’re the reason we’re able to do all that we do. And you help make our jobs rewarding and enjoyable. Happy New Year!
Now, buckle up for our review of 2021. It was a wild ride.
In the days before Congress met to certify the Electoral College votes, we knew something might happen. There was a rally scheduled for the National Mall, and Donald Trump had not ceased claiming that the election was stolen. But I don’t think we were truly prepared for what went down. Two of our reporters were at the rally and then headed to the Capitol as attendees began to gather there, and we published this account from Andrew and Audrey the next morning. It’s striking to see how they captured the enormity of the moment, sharing their firsthand accounts of hearing people shout “Hang Mike Pence” and bragging about being in Nancy Pelosi’s office, and chilling to see that some attendees were comfortable going on the record to discuss the possibility of more violence.
The riots prompted our first-ever staff editorial. There are a few reasons we don’t publish these frequently. For one, we don’t have institutional stances on many issues. We seek out different perspectives to foster a healthier debate. So when we do say something collectively, we mean it. In response to the riots at the Capitol, we called for Donald Trump to be impeached, removed from office, and barred from running again. As the bosses wrote: “Trump is dangerous to the peace and security of the American nation. Indeed, he is exactly the kind of man the founders of the nation worried about when they gave Congress the power to impeach and remove the nation’s chief executive.”
Speaking of different perspectives … Andy Smarick took a glass-half-full approach to the events of that day. He argued the eventual peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden shows that our institutions held when it mattered the most, because individuals in power made the right decisions in the moment. Meanwhile, Paul Miller made the case that Trump set out a blueprint that would make it easier for a future demagogue to thwart democracy.
The Capitol riots did nothing to keep Donald Trump in office, but they did lead to his historic second impeachment. And the fallout from that had long-term implications for the Republican Party. Rep. Liz Cheney led a group of 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment. Steve wrote a great piece arguing that Republicans need to decide what kind of leader they want–someone in the mold of Kevin McCarthy, or someone like Liz Cheney. Given that Cheney was later stripped of her title of GOP Conference chair–and that the Wyoming GOP later voted to stop recognizing her as a Republican, we can see how that’s gone.
There was a time during the spring when we thought the pandemic was almost behind us. In The Morning Dispatch, we stopped publishing daily COVID statistics. I wrote a Dispatch Weekly noting that social distancing stickers were being scraped from floors and plexigass shields were coming down. And then … Delta. And now … Omicron.
There’s not a single aspect of our lives that COVID hasn’t touched. We all know people who’ve died or been terribly ill, people who’ve lost jobs or businesses, kids who have struggled with virtual learning or developed mental health issues. It’s been brutal. Fights over mask mandates, vaccines, and lockdowns have only exacerbated our polarization. Stories of airline passengers being duct-taped into their seats or screaming at other passengers show that some people have lost their ever-loving minds. Jonah took a philosophical look at what he termed the “great pandemic freakout” in August: “As a society, we have no living memory of anything like the last 18 months. But deep in our genetic library, we have volumes of memory about how to respond to disease and contagion. From an evolutionary perspective, we can rationally explain why we have these responses. But that doesn’t mean the responses themselves are rational.”
David demonstrated a special knack for addressing the very cranky elephant in the room: the growing anti-vax sentiments of the religious right. He worries that the battle for religious liberty has caused people to ignore that liberty has some limits, and that it also requires responsibility. “I have liberty, yes, but my liberty does not extend to taking or endangering your life. ... In addition, my liberty doesn’t extend to materially impairing your ability to pursue happiness. Even if COVID doesn’t kill, the frequent infliction of painful, long term illness can sap a person of hope and joy and deprive sick Americans of economic opportunity and the psychological benefits of social participation in American life.”
The vaccines were and remain a marvel, even if the rollout was … uneven at best. James Capretta weas on the vaccine beat for us, analyzing the supply and distribution process, advising caution on the AstraZeneca vaccine, and more.
I still remember expressing disbelief that our schools would go remote for three weeks starting in mid-March 2020. “Three weeks? That’s toooooo loooonnnng,” I moaned. Joke was on me. While we were extremely lucky to have in-person schooling for the entire 2020-21 school year (which inspired me to write about how schools that tried were pulling it off), many schools didn’t open. Frederick Hess wrote in February about the challenges school districts and parents faced. .
The Omicron variant is crashing through the population, and it’s leaving Americans in need of tests. Too bad we don’t have enough. In Capitolism, Scott Lincicome criticized the FDA for dragging its feet on approving rapid tests, which are widely available and cheap in Europe. And when the supply chain knotted itself into a pretzel, he had some thoughts on that, too.
Of course, a lot of our best work on COVID has been in The Morning Dispatch. Picking just one example would be like trying to pick my favorite child–if I had dozens of children. Just do yourself a favor and make sure you’re signed up to receive it, OK?
If Donald Trump and Joe Biden had anything in common, it was the desire to leave Afghanistan. The Trump administration agreed to a withdrawal agreement that our Tom Joscelyn criticized repeatedly. And while the Biden administration ditched many of Trump’s policies upon assuming office, it kinda sorta stuck with the bad withdrawal agreement, claiming its hands were tied. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that our departure was such a disaster (and in fact, Joscelyn predicted a bad outcome), but that makes it no less devastating. Among the weeks of obfuscating and finger pointing, administration officials expressed surprise and disappointment that the Afghan military failed to present much of a challenge to the Taliban. David went after that off-base critique, pointing out the problem was how we trained the Afghan military to be “force multiplier,” providing support to our troops. When we pulled our troops out, the Afghan troops were mostly defenseless. (He also wrote a lovely tribute to those who served and argued their sacrifices were not in vain.)
Joscelyn’s Vital Interests newsletter has lived up to its name all year, providing plenty of warnings about Russia and China and other security threats. But he did some of his best work on Afghanistan. He explained that the fall of Kabul was a failure of military intelligence and also debunked President Biden’s claim that al-Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan.”
Paul Miller, a former military intelligence officer who served as as National Security Council staffer in both the Bush and Obama administrations, wrote several great pieces for us on Afghanistan. Perhaps his most important contribution was looking at the downstream effects the decision would have. “The biggest losers are the Afghans, of course,” he wrote. “But the entire world is less safe, less stable, and less free than it was last week. Change in world politics is not linear or steady; it can happen in lurches and sudden starts and stops.”
The withdrawal was chaotic enough even before suicide bombers attacked Hamid Karzai International Airport, killing 13 U.S. troops and more than 90 Afghans. The debacle prompted our second-ever staff editorial, “A Defeat of Choice.” The editors wrote: “Sadly, Saigon is an instructive analogue, and the Biden administration is not shining by comparison. The South Vietnamese government survived for 25 months after the evacuation of U.S. combat troops and most Americans. Kabul fell 38 days after President Biden promised this would be nothing like Saigon. The president, in a spate of defensive and morally reprehensible statements, blamed the speed of the Taliban’s military victory over the United States and her allies on one of those allies—the Afghan government and army.”
After the U.S. withdrawal was complete (or, well, over), media attention died down predictably. But we vowed to continue covering the story. Charlotte reported on efforts by veterans, lawmakers, and nonprofits to continue bringing home those we left behind. She talked to Jesse Jensen about the work done by his group, Task Force Argo. The group had successfully evacuated more than 2,000 Americans, permanent residents and eligible Afghans by late October.
Infrastructure vs. Build Back Better
A weird thing happened back in June. A bipartisan group of senators including Mitt Romney, Kyrsten Sinema, Rob Portman and others agreed to the framework for an infrastructure package that would invest in highways, bridges, transportation, and expanded broadband services. There was a big ceremony at the White House with President Biden. And then, just hours later, Biden announced that he wouldn’t sign the legislation unless Congress also passed what he was then calling the American Families Plan (which became the Build Back Better bill). He quickly walked back that statement, but months later a similar scenario played out in Congress. Progressives in the House managed to delay votes on the bipartisan infrastructure package while trying to keep the bills paired.
As it happened, the infrastructure bill finally passed and Build Back Better didn’t. While the administration kept insisting that the bill would cost, we’re not making this up, $0, the CBO disagreed. And after some Republicans asked the CBO to score it using the assumption that some temporary programs would be extended, the total got worse. In the end, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced he could not support the bill in its present form, and without him, it died. (This Morning Dispatch explains the breakdown concisely but with great details.)
We had a good piece looking at exactly how the childcare provision would work. And let’s just say … if you like the college student debt crisis, you’d love what the BBB would do for childcare. If you’d like a more complete look at what was actually in the legislation, Uphill did an excellent and thorough series: here, here, here, and here. If you survive that, be sure to read Jonah’s G-File on how this is not how legislation should be made.
When the dust settled, Chris Stirewalt wrote that Manchin did the Democrats an incredible service by putting the brakes on Build Back Better.
Okay, okay, I hate listicles. But we had a lot of great work this year on topics other than the biggest stories, and we’d be well into 2022 if I summarized them all. So, here are a few. If you’ve made it this far, give them a read. Bookmark them for later. Email them to your friends. And thanks again for reading.
We had a number of conversations with remarkable people this year, including a scholar who spent 40 months in an Iranian prison, a leading Russian dissident, and Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Look for more coverage on our relationship with China in the coming year. Xi Jinping has been increasingly aggressive, cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong and threatening Taiwan. And what can be done about the Uyghurs in Xingjiang?
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are close allies, but they are seemingly in competition to see who can pose a bigger threat to the United States.
The Election That Never Ended
Joe Biden’s inauguration didn’t stop some from pushing false narratives about election fraud.
The State of the GOP
The lasting influence of Donald Trump is apparent when you look at any number of statewide races.
That Virginia Governor’s Election
It was Terry McAuliffe’s election to lose, and lose he did.
Iran (Notice a Theme?)
The Biden administration has shown itself to be a little too eager to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Even after hardliner Ebrahim Raisi took over as president.
Give these a listen if you missed them the first time around.
The Dispatch Podcast