GovMatt’s Person of the Year: Runners Up

Disclaimer: Matt McDaniel, the author of this piece is a candidate for the First District City Council Seat in Baltimore City. While this rankings list does not touch or concern Mr. McDaniel’s race, in the interest of disclosure, Mr. McDaniel has made no endorsements of any candidates and has received no money or funding from any of the candidates on this list. His campaign website can be found here.

As most of you are aware, TIME Magazine publishes its “Person of the Year” in early December of each year. The qualification for this distinction is, loosely, that the individual selected has had the most impact, for good or for ill, in the previous year. For TIME Magazine, the qualification has allowed both Hitler and Pope Francis to be designated “Person of the Year.” In choosing our person of the year for the site, the same qualification is being used. Before we unveil our Person of the Year, however, here are some of the people who were considered, but ultimately passed over (they are in no particular order):

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Bashar Assad: The embattled “President” (dictator) of Syria was on a lot of short lists for the past several years for being the most influential person in the world. This seems odd at the outset: how can a dictator facing a five-year-long civil war be an influential figure? The answer to that, and the reason Assad was considered for the list this year, comes in the form of the collateral consequences of Assad’s regime’s violent clutching to power in the war-torn state. In 2015 in particular, Assad’s stubborn/resolute position to stay in command of Syria led to the Russian government’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad against Islamists and rebels in the country. This comes as the United States funded “moderate” rebels in the country and conducted airstrikes against Islamists.

With the downing of a Russian fighter that violated Turkey’s airspace lat in the year, the world was reminded that two of the major nations in the world, the United States and Russia, were occupying the same airspace without a unity of mission or purpose. Setting up a powder keg between the United States and the Russian Federation over the Syrian conflict has been a point of foreign policy tension for much of the past year.

Another collateral consequence of the Syrian Civil War has been the mass-displacement of people flooding across the borders of Turkey, Jordan, and into North Africa. The “Syrian Refugee Crisis” has made headlines for over a year as Europe struggled with the humanitarian and logistical concerns of millions of refugees and displaced peoples streaming westward. Especially given the rise of radical Islamic terrorism in Europe (Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-Bataclan massacre, et al.), the prudence of accepting displaced persons from the Middle East has been a source of debate and discussion. Even in the United States, that, unlike Greece or Italy, is not confronted with Syrian migrants entering the nation by the hundreds-of -thousands, a heated debate about the wisdom of accepting refugees without thorough vetting was a major discussion point in American politics this year.

The reason why Bashar Assad is not the “Person of the Year” this year is that the spiraling consequences of the Syrian Civil War have been nearly half-a-decade in the making. While Russia’s involvement in the conflict this year effectively guarantees that Assad will remain in power in Syria, the migrant crisis is less attributable to Assad and more attributable to civilians being caught in the crossfire between regime loyalists and rebels (be they “moderate” or “extremist”). It is unclear to what extent Assad maintains operational control over the internal affairs of Syria. While his actions have caused a foreign policy flashpoint, if he were to have abdicated to an Islamist government, it is unlikely that the refugee crisis or the growth of the Islamic State would have been averted.

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Vladimir Putin was this site’s “Person of the Year” last year. Like him or hate him, Putin is the national face of Russia. A tyrant in Western eyes, the President of Russia is somewhere around the height of his all-time approval rating with the Russian people. Putin’s strength in the face of perceived Western aggression has been able to pull Russians together in support despite the near-collapse of the Russian economy earlier this year.

The argument that Putin should have been granted the distinction of Person of the Year for 2015 looks something like this: he was able to get significant concessions in Minsk II in February, he was able to keep power despite declining oil prices, and he ignored the United States’ protestations and decided to support Bashar Assad in Syria. Effectively, Putin decided that Russia could fill the void in leadership in the fight against the Islamic State.

The reason why Putin was not the selection this year stems from the fact that, despite Putin’s aggression in the Middle East, he has generally failed to capitalize on his dominant position at the end of last year. Putin ended last year on top of the world, but after Minsk II and the decline in oil prices, the best Putin has been able to do is position himself as a leader in the global War on Terrorism. While this strong position has made him the international foil to President Obama’s apparent dithering, in effect, Russia’s efforts have not ended the Syrian Civil War, nor done more damage to the Islamic State than American incursions. This was not a year of collapse for Russia, but it was also not a year of Russian ascendancy.

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John Kerry: The Secretary of State has had a banner year. Whether or not you find his international accomplishments to be visionary or frighteningly naive, he has certainly been efficient with getting the job done abroad. As one of the chief architects of the Minsk II peace treaty in Eastern Ukraine and of the Iran Deal, Secretary Kerry helped the Obama Administration cap off its term with foreign policy wins.

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Pope Francis: The Pontiff’s first trip to the United States took him to the halls of Congress, the streets of Philadelphia, and the floor of the UN. Continuing to liberalize Catholic theology (maybe not in doctrine, but in perception) has caused rifts among US Catholics but has been well-received by media influences around the globe. The Pope of the environment and “who am I to judge” is revolutionizing the Catholic Church (whether it should be revolutionized or not, is another story).

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Angela Merkel: TIME’s Person of the Year this year, the German Chancellor was a major presence in most of the “big issues” that faced the world this year. Whether it was the Minsk II agreements, the Greek bailout, or the refugee crisis, Merkel was present at the forefront of the international response. Far and away the most powerful woman in the world, Merkel’s stalwart determination and leadership has led to German dominance over the economy of Europe.

The reason why Chancellor Merkel is not this site’s Person of the Year comes down to a subjective interpretation of the relative success of Merkel’s positions this year. Now, there’s a good chance you may disagree with our analysis. That’s perfectly fine. Especially given the fluid nature of several of the foreign policy conflicts around the world, you can simultaneously think that Merkel is one of the key figures in resolving international disputes while still being ineffective.

The “Merkel Problem” can be broken down to “concerning temporary stitching.” Let’s be clear: Merkel’s influence was important in bringing about a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, addressing the Greek sovereign debt crisis, and acting as a reservoir for displaced persons fleeing the Middle East. The problem with each of these positive moves is that the underlying problems were not adequately resolved. While Minsk II is holding, there has been little, if any, check on Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. While Greece remains ostensibly out of total financial catastrophe, the lingering sovereign debt concerns across Europe (including in Italy and Spain) remain major untreated problems. Finally, the influx of migrants from the Middle East, and the subsequent (related or unrelated) acts of terrorism in France (and the fear of terrorism in Germany) has given weight to the opposition of Merkel’s perceived liberalization efforts in Germany. Whether it is Pegida in Germany or FN in France, Europe is facing a nationalistic crossroads that threatens Schengen at its core (especially if you throw the contemplation of Brexit into the mix).

While Angela Merkel’s presence has been felt consistently in foreign affairs in 2015, one questions to what degree this presence has translated into influence (for good or for ill). We could be wrong not giving her the top spot (TIME and others’ arguments are compelling), but our concern is that Merkel has kicked the proverbial can down the road on important issues rather than addressing them.

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Justice Anthony Kennedy: This year’s Supreme Court term was one of the most important in recent history. At the center of the storm was Justice Anthony Kennedy. Siding with the “conservatives” of the Court on lethal injection and pollution while siding with the “liberals” of the Court on redistricting and Obamacare, Justice Kennedy was also the swing vote in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that extended marriage equality nationwide. From authoring one of the Court’s earliest opinions on the rights gays and lesbians, Romer v. Evans, Justice Kennedy continued to be the swing vote in the direction of extending civil rights (Lawrence v. Texas, US v. Windsor). This culminated in Obergefell this year.

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“The Protester.” Occasionally, TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” has defined “Person” broadly to encompass a message or cultural phenomenon. With this in mind, we are drawn to consider “The Protester” as the Person of the Year.

As a side note, while I will explain why the Protester should be considered for, but ultimately rejected, as the Person of the Year in a national/international context, I do think the Baltimore Sun’s Marylander of the Year should have been the Protester. The Sun, instead, chose retiring US Senator Barbara Mikulski.

In several different contexts, “The Protester” has been a prominent figure in the United States in 2015. Certainly our minds are drawn immediately to thinking of the Baltimore Riots in April following the death of Freddie Gray and the protests across the country about perceived disparities in police treatment of African Americans and people of color. More than that, protests addressing broader structural racism and pushing for examination of cultural privileges have been at the forefront of a growing national dialogue on some college campuses.

“The Protester” that we are considering here is not just the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrator or the college sit-in. Rather, a broader definition includes the voters and supporters of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders for the US Presidency. While these individuals may not agree with on another, politically, the emotional and political feelings churning within them are similar: “no one is representing my interests anymore,” “we need real change,” and “I’m tired of the elite dictating what I’m supposed to believe” could all be rallying cries of the disaffected American voter. Condensed by Howard Beale in “The Network”to “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the concept of a protest against the status quo is rising in American politics.

So, why not designate “the Protester” as the Person of the Year? Because, despite the palpable air of change, we are unable to point to any major successes achieved by protest groups this year. Certainly some college students have forced administrations to change policies protesters perceived as unjust, but the larger national dialogue seems unchanged. On the political front, no votes have been cast for any candidate and the air of change remains ephemeral.

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“The Migrant”: All across the world there are stories about migrant peoples in the headlines. While this is not a new reality in the human condition, the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the debates among American politicians over securing the nation’s borders brought migrants into focus this year. These debates have opened up larger questions about xenophobia and potential terrorism as well as the economic impact that displaced persons have on the areas where they settle.

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Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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