The Fine Art of Presidential Failure

With the suspension of Rick Santorum’s campaign, it has become overwhelmingly likely that the nation’s voters are going to be choosing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney this fall for the Presidency of the United States of America. Come sunrise on November 7, one of these men will be on the way to four years in the White House — while the other will be consigned to that very special circle in (living) hell lined up for those who aspire to the biggest job in America, and fail to win in.

While Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Alf Landon and Barry Goldwater (just to name a few relatively recent examples) all carved exceptional careers in the service of their nation, each of their legacies carries the hard-to-shake whiff of “loser,” based on the varying degrees of stomping that they received at the hands of their presidential opponents.

When historians write these statesmen’s biographies and critics or pundits synopsize them for popular consumption, it will undoubtedly be their failed campaigns that garner the most attention public attention. But despite their dubious lack of achievement in the most scrutinized contest in America, these recent Presidential losers are actually in pretty good company, when one takes the long view of electoral history.

Consider the era between Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln, a period when most casual students of history would be hard pressed to name many of the largely undistinguished (with the possible exceptions of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk) line of Presidents who led their nation on its inexorable march first to the Pacific, and then to the War Between the States. The three greatest political minds and forces of that era, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay managed to pull together precisely zero successful presidential campaigns between them, with Webster losing to Martin Van Buren in 1836, and Clay falling to John Quincy Adams (in 1824), Jackson (1832) and Polk (1844).

Calhoun, for his part, managed to be elected as Vice President during Jackson’s first term, and should have been King Andrew’s heir apparent — except for the fact that he was unceremoniously dumped as Veep before Jackson’s second term, replaced by Van Buren, who rode his boss’ coat-tails to his own victory over Webster four years later. Nevertheless, the legacy of their age was, in large part, shaped more by these three Presidential failures than it was by the men who defeated them for the biggest prize in the land. History has certainly been kinder to them than it has to Presidents Fillmore, Buchanan, Taylor and Pierce. And history could have been kinder to Van Buren, too, who could also be listed as one of the most influential power-brokers and policy makers of that same era, except for the fact this his Presidency was the most marginal part of his career — and that’s what tends to be remembered, his other accomplishments paling in hindsight into insignificance.

In the twentieth century, we have been graced with a series of habitual presidential losers, largely from outside of the traditional two-party system. Socialist Norman Thomas ran (and lost) six times, in each campaign between 1928 and 1948, inclusive. He never captured the big prize, but he did get to watch Franklin D. Roosevelt implement many of the policies for which he had advocated during his early campaigns, and his insightful thoughts, writings and speeches against the Cold War arms race, poverty, racism, the war in Vietnam and the military-industrial complex in general were often prescient, and frequently pilfered by major party opponents.

Thomas followed in the oft-defeated footsteps of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate from 1900 to 1912 (inclusive), and again in 1920 — when he ran his campaign from his prison cell in Moundsville, West Virginia, to which he had been convicted for speaking out against American involvement in the Great War in Europe, in violation of the war-time espionage law. While Debs never slept in the White House, he was the lightning rod of the labor movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is still regarded as one of the most eloquent and passionate orators of his era.

Third party losing candidates Theodore Roosevelt (1912), Robert LaFollette (1924), Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) all merit mention for actually having managed to win electoral votes, a feat that Debs and Thomas never achieved. Then former-President Roosevelt, the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party candidate in 1912, actually managed to win more electoral votes than incumbent William Howard Taft, who rebounded from his humiliation at the hands of Roosevelt (his former mentor) and Woodrow Wilson (who won the election because of Roosevelt’s maverick campaign) to ultimately become Chief Justice of the United States — the only man ever to hold both positions. All things considered, Taft would have been happier to be a failure in his first Presidential campaign as well: “I don’t remember that I was ever President,” he remarked late in his life.

Ross Perot didn’t manage any electoral votes, but he did pull enough popular votes to materially impact the outcome of the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton unseated George H.W. Bush. Eight years later, Ralph Nader’s Green campaign sucked enough votes out of the Democratic side to throw a squeaker of an election towards the Republican George W. Bush, leaving Al Gore to bear perhaps the heaviest tang of failure in recent electoral memory: like Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Grover Cleveland in 1892, Gore actually managed to lose an election despite getting more popular votes than his foe. Perot and Nader lost like gangbusters, sure, but they made a difference in tight campaigns, and that difference has helped spark additional interest in third party candidates and causes — and the impacts (intended and unintended, good and bad) that they can have on the nation’s discourse and governance.

Our prior President, George W. Bush, appears to have studied past failed presidential candidates as well, and taken to heart some of their policy proposals. One such failed candidate once proposed an amendment to the Constitution that read: “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the office of the President. He shall have power to lay and collect taxes to provide for the common defense and general welfare of his family and friends. If the country is in peril for the lack of essential minerals, oil and land necessary for its citizens, he may encourage incursions into other lands not belonging to the United States for the procurement of these valuables.”

The losing candidate in question? Sad-eyed actor/comedian and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour writer Patrick L. Paulsen, a fringe candidate of the furriest variety from 1968 to 1996, proving that even the biggest losers sometime manage to influence the winners — even if no one knows (or wants to admit) that they’re doing it.

One thought on “The Fine Art of Presidential Failure

  1. Superb post. Two offhand observations: first carries over from Drew Faust’s contention in This Republic of Suffering that the federal government really didn’t become the boogeyman the states’ righters claimed it was until after they paradoxically took it to war and made it so…such that Congress (with the exceptions of the few POTUSes you mentioned) was where the best thinkers gravitated prior to the war.

    Second observation, you gotta give Gus Hall credit for running 4x as a Commie.


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