Juan Williams: My picks as 2018's top politicians

Juan Williams: My picks as 2018's top politicians
© Greg Nash

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s time for my annual pick of the top political player on Capitol Hill.

First let’s acknowledge that, at the end of 2018, Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi slated to deliver remarks during panel hearing on poverty The DNC's climate problems run deep Cracks form in Democratic dam against impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) — for now the House Minority Leader but likely to return as Speaker in January — stands as a living legend.

The nearly 40 House seats the Democrats have picked up so far in the midterms, as well as the probability that Pelosi will retake the Speaker’s gavel, are proof of her sustained political success.

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Her past legislative triumphs include passage of the 2009 economic stimulus that helped bring the country out of recession and her stewardship of the Affordable Care Act, which President Obama signed into law in March 2010.

But this is not the Hall of Fame. I’m limiting this contest to top political performance in the last year.

There have to be two winners, since Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much.

For the Republicans, the award goes to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request MORE (R-Ky) for his skillful, albeit shameless, use of the Senate to pack federal courts with right-wing judges.

McConnell’s big prize was confirming Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court hands Virginia Democrats a win in gerrymandering case Supreme Court hands Virginia Democrats a win in gerrymandering case Supreme Court rules defendants can be tried on state and federal charges, potentially impacting Manafort MORE to the Supreme Court. Despite powerful testimony alleging Kavanaugh, as a youth, had committed sexual assault, McConnell used brutal politics to force confirmation for President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE’s nominee.

In 2018, McConnell also increased the size of his Senate majority despite the blue wave that swept the Democrats back into control of the House.

By the way, this is the second time I have made McConnell the politician of the year. In 2016, he similarly used brutal but effective strategies to deny Obama the right to appoint a Supreme Court justice to fill a seat that sat vacant for nearly a year.

His blowtorch approach paid off when Trump filled the seat instead, with conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch. And it paid off again in 2018 when Trump got a second pick — Kavanaugh — and cemented a far-right majority on the high court.

According to an October 2018 Morning Consult poll, McConnell is America’s least popular senator, with 52 percent of Kentucky voters disapproving of the six-term incumbent. And conservative activists and talk radio hosts still abuse McConnell for not staking out hardline positions, such as building a border wall.

Despite the backstabbing, McConnell stands as the main mover of the conservative agenda in Congress for 2018. 

Far on the other side of the political divide, the winner as the top liberal force of 2018 is Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate Biden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate Poll: Six Dems lead Trump in Florida match-ups MORE (D-Calif.).

She is both the woman of the past year and a good bet as the future of her party. 

At Senate hearings in 2018, Harris stood out with her pointed questioning of Trump officials and nominees. These jousts have made her a social media sensation. Harris honed those skills as a former San Francisco District Attorney and Attorney General of California.

Harris also positioned herself as a leader on the explosive issue of income inequality. She put forward a bill to give a $6,000 tax break to families making less than $100,000 per year. She is also a co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally MORE’s (I-Vt.) Medicare for All healthcare bill.

The only black woman in the Senate — and the daughter of two immigrants — Harris is a leading voice challenging the GOP’s anti-immigrant policies. That has put her in good standing with immigration advocates. Her strong support for Planned Parenthood has also won applause among white women on the left.

Her leadership on these top liberal priorities is helping Harris with union leaders and far-left activists. They still openly worry she is too moderate, not the fiery leftist they feel would be sure to excite their base.

But so far Harris is attracting the anti-Trump energy of 2018 that made stars out of more leftist Democrats such as gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in Texas.

Harris got rock star treatment during a trip to Iowa in October. With ties to deep-pocketed donors in California’s Silicon Valley and Hollywood, she did her part in midterm fundraising for Democrats, building a national network to support a presidential run. 

As the 2020 nomination fight begins, Harris barely shows up in the polls. But as Perry Bacon Jr. wrote in Fivethirtyeight.com this summer, the “betting markets have her near the top, reflecting the view among political insiders that Harris could win the Democratic nomination with a coalition of well-educated whites and blacks, the way Obama did in 2008.”

McConnell and Harris are in the driver’s seats for the futures of their respective parties.

The 76-year-old McConnell wants to cement his legacy as the man who made the federal judiciary a stronghold for the right.

The 54-year-old Harris, meanwhile, is pushing left-leaning ideas with centrist appeal. She is redefining the party while Democratic activists are still reacting to Trump’s excesses. 

The real fireworks will begin when these two winners in political wars of 2018 become the face of conflicting agendas on the Senate floor in 2019.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel. His latest book, "'What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?' — Trump's War on Civil Rights" is out now, published by Public Affairs Books.