Why McCain Could Break the Presidential-Loser Mold

Like the sun rising in the east and the L.A. Clippers losing more games than they win, you can count

Like the sun rising in the east and the L.A. Clippers losing more games than they win, you can count on the losing candidate in any election talking about putting the nastiness of the campaign in the past and giving the winner a chance to succeed.

In that sense, John McCain’s comments in an extended interview on ABC’s This Week on Sunday were utterly unremarkable. Asked to define his role in politics now that Barack Obama will be president, the vanquished G.O.P. nominee replied: “I think my job is, of course, to be a part of and hopefully exert some leadership in the loyal opposition. But I emphasize the word loyal.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but not different from anything we’ve heard from the losing side in past presidential elections. When he and the first President Bush were forced from office by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992, for instance, Dan Quayle said of Clinton, “If he runs the country as well as he ran his campaign, we’ll have nothing to worry about.” But Quayle and his fellow Republicans treated Clinton to one of the roughest presidential honeymoons in memory.

But there is something different about the position McCain is in right now compared to past non-incumbent presidential losers: He’s still in office (and recently announced plans to seek another six-year Senate term in 2010) but, at 72 years old, has absolutely no illusions about ever running for president again. We really haven’t seen this combination in modern times.

Some losing candidates have stayed in office like McCain, but they all believed – however irrationally – that another White House run might be in their future if they played their cards right.

John Kerry is a perfect example of this. When it became clear that he’d come up short on election night 2004, he made sure to offer a quick and gracious concession the next morning, the better to avoid the “sore loser” tag. Then, after offering a few weeks’ worth of obligatory bromides about uniting the country and pulling for the president to succeed, he moved into 2008 campaign mode, loudly objecting to George W. Bush’s agenda in the Senate in an effort to convince the left he would be in 2008 everything he hadn’t been as a candidate in 2004.

Kerry’s plan, of course, was never going to succeed. He had blown an election that Democrats believed could and had to be won. There are no second chances after that kind of failure. But Kerry didn’t grasp this. Clear through 2005 and 2006, he was running for president again, even headlining a major Democratic dinner in New Hampshire weeks before the ’06 midterm election. The proximal reason he didn’t end up running was the toxic reaction to his “botched joke” on the eve of the ’06 vote. Absent that, who knows if wiser voices would have ultimately prevailed on him and kept him out of the ’08 race? What is clear is that Kerry returned to the Senate after his ’04 loss not to legislate, but to run for president again.

The same has been true of the other sitting senators who have lost modern presidential elections. George McGovern, even after coming within inches of a 50-state wipeout in 1972, still believed he could secure a future Democratic nomination. He won reelection in South Dakota in 1974 and then began positioning himself to step in late in the game and claim the 1976 Democratic nod. (Back then, it was still customary for major candidates to skip some or all of the primary season and to bid for the nomination behind the scenes.) His plan failed, and even after losing his Senate seat in the Republican landslide of 1980, McGovern still wouldn’t drop his White House dreams. He ran for the Democratic nomination again in 1984 (his best showing was third place in Massachusetts) and even toyed with trying again in 1992, when he was 70.

Hubert Humphrey was not actually a senator when he lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon (he had given up his seat four years earlier to become Lyndon Johnson’s vice president), but he successfully returned to the chamber two years later, in 1970, so that he could position himself for the presidency again. He sought the 1972 Democratic nomination, losing out to McGovern, and while he never officially entered, he did all he could do to entice Democrats into “drafting” him in 1976. Like Kerry and McGovern, his post-campaign Senate service was hardly focused on finding ways to work with his old opponent’s administration.

Other unsuccessful nominees have simply disappeared from politics. Walter Mondale, a former vice president when he lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in 1984, exiled himself to his native Minnesota, where he began practicing law. He briefly considered running for the Senate there in 1990 (when he begged off, Paul Wellstone entered the race) and emerging once again in 2002, when Democrats needed an emergency candidate after Wellstone’s death days before the election.

Michael Dukakis still had a job when he lost to George H. W. Bush in 1988, but when he returned to the Massachusetts governorship, he found a state in fiscal collapse, with an ugly recession looming. Within months, he swore off a 1990 reelection campaign and watched his popularity slip under 20 percent in his final year in office. He has been in academia since 1991.

McCain is different from all of these men. His Senate seat makes him an automatic player in national politics, but his age makes it pointless for him to use that role to position himself for another presidential campaign. Theoretically, this puts him in position to do what every losing candidate promises (and fails) to do: to help the winning candidate govern successfully.

A comparison to one more defeated candidate, Bob Dole, might be relevant. Dole, like McCain, long harbored presidential aspirations, and actually ran for the job three times. Through it all, he was never particularly liked or respected by the Republican Party’s conservative base, and it could be painful to watch Dole pretend to share their values in an effort to keep them from revolting against him and denying him his dream. The same, roughly, was true of McCain these past few years.

Once Dole lost to Clinton in 1996, though, he recognized that the it was over. He was 73 years old. He’d actually quit his Senate seat six months earlier in an effort to jump-start his campaign with a dramatic gesture. Dole was free to be Dole. There was no pressure to sabotage Clinton and to attack Democrats at every opening, no fear of fomenting a mutiny on the right. It’s not that Dole underwent an ideological overhaul, but he was publicly complimentary of Clinton and even found ways to work with his old foe. Clinton even awarded Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

McCain, like Dole after ’96, doesn’t really need to fear the right anymore. If he really is at odds with his party’s base on issues like immigration and the environment or, for that matter, on cooperating productively with the Obama administration — he has the freedom to express those differences without worrying much about the political cost. And, with his clout in the Senate, he is in position to do more than just talk.

Whether he’ll take advantage of his position to work closely with the new president is anyone’s guess. But the fact that it’s even plausible is nearly unprecedented.

Why McCain Could Break the Presidential-Loser Mold