Winning Isn't Everything: Nine Presidential Losers Who Made a Difference

On this holiday reserved to honor and appreciate the accomplishments of all American presidents, it's also a moment to take stock of what the losers have given us.

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On this holiday reserved to honor and appreciate the accomplishments of all American presidents, it's also a moment to take stock of what the losers have given us.

It's much more than you think.

Losing presidential candidates have fundamentally changed their parties, set down road maps for new ways to practice presidential politics, settled long-simmering political debates, launched new issues for an inattentive nation to later confront, and broken gender barriers for the presidency and vice presidency.

We don't always consider this much in our victory-obsessed culture and presidential losers of recent vintage have been discarded by their parties like sacks of medical waste. Two quick examples: Michael Dukakis went from Democratic standard bearer in 1988 to the board of Amtrak and a professorship at Northeastern University, while 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole went from leader of the Senate and party powerhouse to a pitchman for Viagra and Pepsi.

A happy reversal of this trend is of course Hillary Rodham Clinton, who though losing after a spirited battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, was tapped by President Obama to be secretary of State. We won't include her as she is so obvious a ground-breaking non-victor.

Likewise, there is the continued visibility and vibrancy of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, who has served ably in the Senate since losing to George W. Bush and who may become secretary of State if Obama wins a second term and Clinton steps aside as she has indicated. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, was an early confidant of Obama's during the presidential transition but became a prominent critic of the president's policies dealing with economic stimulus, health care, Afghanistan and Libya - positions that helped him stave off a primary challenge and win re-election in 2010.

I've become more interested in losing presidential candidates in part because of a new book, "Almost President," by Scott Farris. Among its many nuggets is the revelation that in Norton, Kan., on the wall of the First State Bank "hang the portraits of fifty-nine men who have run for president as the nominee of a major political party and lost." The first? Why Thomas Jefferson, of course. But why Norton? Because in 1872 Horace Greeley, the Liberal Republican Party and Democratic nominee, stopped there en route to Denver - the most famous politician then or since to visit Norton.

Here is a list of nine important presidential losers and why. Some were inspired by Farris' book. Of course, there are more than nine who matter and historians and political scientists could make cases for William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey and Adlai Stevenson. My list is tilted more toward the modern era because we live there now and it's where the reverberations of the loser's campaigns can best be measured and felt.

1. Thomas Jefferson.

He was the first to lose and the first to have to serve as vice president to the victor, John Adams. Under the rules of the time, the candidate who came in second served as vice president. Jefferson lost to Adams by three electoral votes. Not only did he have to serve, he did so under a president whose campaign consisted of charges that Jefferson, among other things, was an atheist, an anarchist and a coward. Jefferson's Democratic-Republican supporters - who supported states rights and vehemently opposed Adams' Federalist concept of a powerful and centralized federal government - called them "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin." Jefferson not only served Adams for four years but did so as a likely challenger for the presidency in 1800, which he was. Jefferson became the first loser to go on to win the presidency, defeating Adams.

2. Henry Clay

The Virginian who moved to Lexington, Ky., to start his legal career is the only member of the House to serve as Speaker in his first term. Clay turned the speakership into a source of vast power, bringing to it for the first time the power to appoint committee chairmanships - which he did with fellow War Hawks who wanted battle with the British, which broke out in 1812. Clay ran for the presidency in 1824 and finished fourth but used his power as Speaker to secure victory for John Quincy Adams and the inconclusive election results left it up to the House to decide the presidency. Clay became Adams' secretary of State in what became known as the "corrupt bargain." Clay ran for the National Republicans in 1832 against Jackson and lost handily (55 percent to 37 percent). Clay ran as a Whig in 1844 and lost to Democrat James K. Polk. As Clay's career developed, he became a strong voice for compromise and repeatedly sought to mend sectional differences over slavery, trade and tariffs. Clay's compromise of 1850 held off the Civil War for another decade. Clay's creation of the Whigs led to the modern Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln considered Clay a model legislator, conciliator and orator. Upon his death, The New York Times declared Clay was "too great to be president."

3.Stephen Douglas

He ran against Lincoln and lost in 1860 but cemented the foundations of the modern Democratic Party. Douglas, according to Farris, also became one of Lincoln's "staunchest defenders" and helped him strategize to "crush the Southern rebellion." With Democrats unsure at the outset of war whether Lincoln's fight was purely a Republican issue, Douglas demanded and won Democratic backing for Lincoln to save the union. "Do not allow the mortification growing out of defeat in a partisan struggle...(to) convert you from patriots to traitors against your native land," Douglas said in Illinois after war broke out. As Farris writes, Douglas' sense was that unity behind Lincoln during the war kept the Democratic Party alive and able to compete after hostilities ended. Absent Douglas, the Democrats might have split over the war and lost all legitimacy in the war-ravaged ruins of post-war politics.

4. Al Smith

Smith grew up on the Lower East side of Manhattan and when he ran against Herbert Hoover in 1928, many voters fretted he was too much of a New Yorker. But Smith's biggest impediment, one that would cost him but transform American politics, was he was the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major party to run for president. The former New York governor had sought the Democratic nomination unsuccessfully in 1924 and secured it in 1928. Smith would have been an important figure even if he hadn't been nominated. As a member of the New York Assembly he led the investigation into the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 workers and fought for legislation to lessen workplace dangers. As governor, Smith hired Robert Moses as an aide and he built the nation's first state park system and transformed the urban landscape of New York City. Smith's landslide loss to Hoover (58 percent to 41 percent) nevertheless created a reservoir of respect and acceptance for Catholics and brought millions of previously non-voting Catholics into the Democratic Party. Some political scientists argue that Smith's campaign motivated large numbers of urban, blue collar voters - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - to join a newly emerging Democratic coalition that would be central to Franklin Roosevelt's campaign in 1932. Smith lost New York in the '28 campaign, but his hand-picked successor, Roosevelt, won and Smith's campaign manager, James Farley, became a key cog in FDR's presidential machinery in 1932 and 1936.

5. Barry Goldwater

The Arizona Republican lost in a 1964 landslide to President Lyndon Johnson (61 percent to 38 percent) but set in motion forces that would transform the modern Republican Party. Goldwater wrested the nomination from the long-dominant moderate wing of the party and propelled conservatives into prominent management positions of a national campaign for the first time. Goldwater's campaign also brought searing national attention to Ronald Reagan who was attempting to make the transition from acting to national politics. Reagan's speech became a favorite among grass roots GOP conservatives and led to his election as governor of California in 1966 and eventual election as president in 1980 as an unabashed conservative in the Goldwater tradition. Goldwater's campaign also marked the beginning of GOP movement into the South. Goldwater carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. No Republican had carried those states since Reconstruction (in fact no Republican until Goldwater had ever won Georgia). Civil rights was the issue that pulled southerners away from national Democrats and Goldwater's opposition gave the GOP inroads that have only widened and diversified across many issues ever since. Republicans consolidated their hold on the South in 1994 when they won a majority of congressional seats in the region for the first time since Reconstruction.

6. George McGovern

South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, possibly the Democratic Party's most liberal nominee of the modern era, lost in a 1972 landslide to President Nixon (520 electoral votes to 17). McGovern amplified the anti-war activism of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 campaign persuaded Lyndon Johnson not to run for re-election. McGovern called the Vietnam War a grotesque misadventure, one that was undermining American prestige and inflicting unconscionable bloodshed. As he began his campaign, McGovern said America in Vietnam was "raining down a terrible technology of death on helpless people below -- the most incredible and murderous bombardment in all the history of mankind." Later in the campaign, McGovern wondered aloud if his denunciations of the war would "help me or hurt me" in the election. He answered himself: "I do not really care." McGovern's dissent, though, fell flat and voters turned against what they regarded as hectoring. McGovern's far bigger accomplishment was to re-create the Democratic Party after the tumultuous 1968 convention. McGovern changed the party's nominating process and cut down organized labor's clout by opening up delegate slots to women, racial minorities, young voters and gays. The commission McGovern chaired also set precise and inflexible numerical quotas for minority representation. In 1968, according to Farris, only 13 percent of DNC delegates were women. In 1972, that percentage grew to 40 percent and 80 percent of those delegates in 1972 were attending their first convention. McGovern saw Democrats were losing the South and had to rebuild their coalition to survive. More than a few political scientists now argue Barack Obama's winning coalition in 2008 (52.9 percent of the popular vote, the highest for a Democrat since Johnson) is a reflection of McGovern's transformative work.

7. Walter Mondale

Mondale nominated the first woman as vice president and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York set a new standard in American politics for women as visible, serious actors on the national stage. Ferraro provided a boost to Mondale's campaign, though the process of selecting her looked clumsy and, as later became obvious, Mondale's vetting of Ferraro's family finances was incomplete. Even so, Ferraro's presence on the ticket gave women a new level of prominence and her ability to fight Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush (a former ambassador to China and CIA Director) to a draw in their debate further cemented the idea that women could compete on the national stage. Mondale lost 49 states to Reagan, but his choice of Ferraro changed the political landscape for women.

8. Howard Dean

Dean didn't even win the Democratic nomination in 2004, but his use of the Internet to organize and fund-raise has transformed and reshaped American politics. If McGovern laid the foundation for a new and diverse Democratic party, Dean taught Democrats how to harness fast-emerging technologies to raise money and mobilize. Dean also was among the first Democrats in the post-9/11 era to castigate President Bush for the Iraq war and to press Democrats to rediscover their liberal philosophical roots. Dean was the first candidate to use online social networking, principally to attract supporters, bring them together and keep them in an ever-expanding database. By September of 2003, Dean had raised more than $25 million, shattering all previous party records for fund-raising and doing so with (also unprecedented) an average donation size of about $80. Dean was also the first major party candidate to reject federal campaign matching funds. Dean flamed out in the Iowa caucuses in 2004 and his election night "Dean Scream" is now legend. Kerry went on to win the nomination, but the insurgent and Internet-based Obama campaign of 2008 owes some of its inspiration and guidance to Dean's handiwork.

9. John McCain.

Like Mondale, McCain set history in motion by for the first time nominating a woman as his Republican Party's vice presidential nominee. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin galvanized support for McCain among women voters and conservatives and, for a time, appeared to give McCain a fighting chance against Obama. Palin's brand of reformist conservatism - she took on entrenched oil interests in her bid for the Alaska governorship - and her later criticism of "crony capitalism" help set in motion tea party organizing after Obama's election. Palin's debate performance against Sen. Joe Biden was solid and her acceptance speech and its barbed criticism of Obama remain for Republicans some of the few bright spots of what became a dreary campaign. Palin, to be sure, had her rough moments in describing what she read or how her world view was shaped. But she never faced the kind of criticism Ferraro did over family finances and can be credited with helping bring genuine energy to McCain's campaign and giving voice to populist conservative ideas that helped Republicans win back the House in 2010 and remain lively in the 2012 nomination fight. Palin's decision not to run in 2012 undercut her status in the party and she remains a divisive figure in national politics. But McCain's decision to put her on ticket will stand for years as a significant moment in GOP politics and has made more credible consideration of GOP women governors like Susana Martinez of New Mexico as a possible vice presidential pick this year.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.