End of Decade: Political Partisanship Marks Legacy of 2000s

Stubborn divisions survived earth-shattering political events.

Dec. 3, 2009 -- It survived two wars, a financial crisis, and the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Two new presidents came to office vowing to banish it.

Yet it endures as perhaps the most lasting political legacy of a decade marked by tumult.

From hanging chads to tea bags, the bitter partisanship that defined the start of the decade is still with us as it closes.

Perhaps the madness of Florida in 2000 should have taught us at the start: Nothing in politics this decade was going to be easy.

Stubborn divisions survived earth-shattering political events. Sept. 11, 2001 stunned the nation and reconfigured its politics; two wars united, then divided, the nation and its voters; Hurricane Katrina fueled frustration and anger at the federal government; the worst financial crisis in generations brought the economy back as the top political issue.

Along the way, history was made: The son of a president was elected to the office himself for the first time in nearly two centuries. He did it by losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College -- a feat not accomplished in more than a century.

Then something even more remarkable happened: The nation elected its first African-American president, elevating a man who started the decade as a little-known state lawmaker over a former first lady and a decorated war hero.

It was a decade that changed the way politics is conducted.

Trent Lott and George Allen spoke their minds and revealed a new reality.

Howard Dean showed what was possible; Barack Obama made possibilities into realities.

Arnold Schwarzenegger rode his celebrity to political office; Sarah Palin rode political office to celebrity.

The nation got its first female House speaker; the nation lost the last Kennedy brother.

Saddam Hussein, Sex Scandals and Bizarre Storylines

Saddam Hussein was caught; Osama bin Laden wasn't.

Old-fashioned sex scandals dimmed bright stars. Democrats had John Edwards, Jim McGreevey and Eliot Spitzer; Republicans had John Ensign, Mark Sanford and David Vitter.

Sometimes, the storylines were just bizarre: Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting buddy; Sen. Larry Craig was arrested in a men's room at a Minnesota airport; Gov. Rod Blagojevich was caught on tape seeming literally to put a Senate seat once held by the president up for sale.

Much as the 1990s was the Clinton decade, the 2000s figure to belong to George W. Bush. His early successes -- encapsulated by his bullhorn moment atop the rubble of the Twin Towers -- built a Republican majority some thought had the makings of permanence. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and seemed to grow stronger because of it.

Then, as quickly as Bush's fortunes rose, they fell again. His narrow reelection in 2004 couldn't power his Social Security reforms through a Republican Congress or keep Terri Schiavo attached to a respirator.

A 2005 hurricane inflicted political damage that's still healing. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in May 2003, except the wars dragged on. Voters exacted revenge by giving Democrats control of Congress again, in 2006.

Those wars left a political toll in the Democratic Party, too. John Kerry's support for the war in Iraq hobbled his efforts to draw a clear contrast with Bush; similarly, Hillary Clinton's support for it gave Obama, a junior senator from Illinois, a shot at challenging the party's reigning dynasty.

Obama Defines Political Identity Around Bush

Obama's message of "hope" and "change" was appealing to a nation that had grown sick of the political paralysis of the past 15 years. And when the economy cratered in the last months of Bush's tenure, Obama was there to pick up the pieces.

Through it all, the nation was left basically where it was at the decade's start -- closely divided, and unsure of what's next.