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Archive for Sunday, October 14, 2007

Campaigns offer more than one prize

Even without winning, candidates like Brownback, Biden have much to gain

October 14, 2007

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You read it here first. Christopher J. Dodd is not going to be the 44th president of the United States. Nor is Joseph R. Biden Jr. And Sam Brownback makes three. All of them are far more powerful on the Senate floor, where their views and their votes are taken seriously, than they are on the presidential campaign trail, where they are more curiosities than contenders. Why are they doing this? Why are they wasting their time and other people's money?

This has been the kind of question Americans have been asking since a lonely campaigner who lost a high-profile Senate race and served only one term in the House ran for the White House in 1860. You know him as Abraham Lincoln. But there was a time he was as unlikely a president as Biden or Brownback.

That's one of the reasons people like Sen. Dodd run for president. Anything can happen; lightning can strike. Indeed, the long-shot candidacy has had more appeal since 1976, when an unknown figure, Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia who had served two terms in the state senate, won the Democratic nomination and then the White House.

Other goals

But presidential campaigns aren't only to win the White House. Sometimes they are campaigns for another office entirely, like the vice presidency or a Cabinet position. Sometimes they are campaigns for respectability or for recognition. Sometimes they are campaigns for redemption. And viewed in that way, it is arguable that sometimes losing campaigns for a presidential nomination are more successful than winning ones.

Here's a question that might help you understand why: Who emerged from the 1988 election in a stronger position, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, who won the nomination, or Sen. Al Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who dropped out of the race, went on to serve two terms as vice president, and then won his party's nomination a dozen years later?

Right now Sen. Biden may actually think he has a chance at winning the nomination - his plan for victory very likely will look a lot like the chart outlining Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care overhaul in 1993 - but more likely his campaign will be remembered for transforming his reputation from hopeless windbag on every subject to insightful analyst on international problems.

Biden gains status

Six months ago it was inconceivable that the Delaware Democrat might be considered for secretary of state (everybody's assumption is that the next Democratic secretary of state will be Richard Holbrooke, who helped lead the Dayton conference bringing peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina), but that's no longer out of the question. Nor would be a sojourn at Turtle Bay as the chief American delegate to the United Nations.

But Biden is not the first to use a presidential campaign to elevate his status in his party or in national affairs. The common theory is that candidates have to enhance their experience and resumes so that they can run for president, but sometimes candidates run for president so they can enhance their experience and resumes. Bruce Babbitt ran a brief presidential campaign in 1992, for example, but performed so credibly and creditably that he was selected by Bill Clinton to become secretary of the interior and nearly was nominated for the Supreme Court. He won by losing.

So might Sen. Dodd. In the course of half a presidential campaign he has all but erased two stigmas, one of his own (that he was a less than serious lawmaker, more likely to provide good company than good ideas) and one of his father's (that the late Tom Dodd, censured by the Senate for misuse of funds, was destined to be remembered as a crook rather than as a prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg). Dodd very likely has accomplished more for himself and his family in the last six months than in the 26 years he has represented Connecticut in the Senate.

As for a presidential campaign as instrument of redemption: Former Sen. George S. McGovern will forever be remembered for losing 49 states to Richard M. Nixon in 1972 in a campaign where Watergate tactics were used against the president's rivals. For a dozen years McGovern was a forlorn figure, an easy symbol of Democratic failure and of the party's weakness on national security, an image that persisted even through years when the Vietnam War was widely discredited.

Then, in 1984, Mr. McGovern mounted a second presidential campaign. No one thought he had a whit of a chance, and in the end he withdrew shortly after the New Hampshire primary. But he talked a lot of sense in the early days of that campaign, serving as a conscience and a rudder to the rest of the field, which included former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. and Sen. Gary W. Hart. He finished third in the Iowa caucuses but reclaimed his position as a moral authority in his party, or at least among the members of the party elite who had made his name synonymous with failure and fecklessness.

Buchanan gains visibility

Then we have Patrick J. Buchanan. He ran for president three times, never with a credible chance of prevailing, though he did defeat Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and win the New Hampshire primary with a peasants-and-pitchfork populist campaign in 1996. Mr. Buchanan had less of a chance of winning the presidency than he did of winning the lottery, but my guess is that more people have heard of Pat Buchanan (and have heard Pat Buchanan at a high-fee speech) as a result of his presidential campaigns than would have otherwise. It's true that he lost these campaigns, but it isn't true that he was a loser as a result.

For the next several months there will be a lot of brave talk about upset victories from the candidates at the bottom of the polls. Some days it will take bravery even for them to make those arguments. But if Sen. Dodd or Sen. Biden ends up in a Democratic Cabinet, or in larger leadership roles on Capitol Hill, if Sen. Brownback becomes the new leading voice of religious conservatives, if former GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas becomes the Republicans' vice presidential nominee, will any of them think they have wasted their time?

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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