Why you should care
Because what might seem like an unprecedented election battle actually has its roots in what came before.
Catch up on episodes of The Contenders: 16 for ’16, OZY’s TV series that aired on PBS, and learn more about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth.
It was one month after billionaire Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and still a few weeks out before the first Republican primary debate when we interviewed our very first contender in July 2015. When we spoke with former presidential candidate and governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, in Washington, D.C., for the pilot episode of what would become The Contenders: 16 for 16, whose final episode recently aired on PBS, we had a general idea for doing a film series about what it takes to run for the most powerful job in the world.
Almost immediately, Dean helped put that concept into sharper focus in reflecting on his own challenging candidacy. “Politics is a substitute for war,” he said. “You’re not going to meet the garden club when you’re running for president of the United States — you are going to meet some people who 400 years ago would have cheerfully taken your life.”
Even a one-of-a-kind figure like Trump is not without his precedents on the campaign trail.
Indeed. And if the subsequent 2016 campaign — perhaps the longest and hardest fought presidential race in U.S. history — has done anything, it has reinforced the saliency of Dean’s observation. This unprecedented race has seen so many firsts. Yet to really understand how someone like Trump has shattered the mold of the presidential candidate, or how someone like Hillary Clinton stands on the precipice of history, there is no escaping the contenders like Dean who have run the same tumultuous political gauntlet and come out scathed, damaged and exhausted, but still alive, on the other side.
Why Political Losers Matter
The vast majority of the contenders we profiled, like the vast majority of presidential and vice presidential candidates, failed in their quest for the highest offices in the land. Presidential politics is a blood sport, and, among the many contenders, there can only be one winner. For most of us, losing can help build character and push us forward to succeed. But what exactly is gained from losing politically on such a big stage? So asks one our viewers, Katie Pirigyi, from the swing state of Ohio.
The impertinent answer is of course that former candidates have a lot to gain on the personal financial level (or personal brand if you are Trump), and can cash in on their unsuccessful runs through everything from book tours to cable news punditry to infomercials promising to “reverse” diabetes (or all three if you are Mike Huckabee). But perhaps the better answer is that losing a major political race can shape the winner that you — or someone like you — later becomes.
Both Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were booted out of office by their state’s voters only to learn from their mistakes, rebound and not only win future terms, but use them as a launching pad to a major party candidacy — and, in Clinton’s case, the presidency. Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s loss to President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primary staked out his place as a leading conservative voice in his party and laid the groundwork for his successful run four years later. The most consequential losers, however, are those whose defeat paves the way for another’s future victory, from the millions of new voters that Jesse Jackson’s campaigns registered in the 1980s and who voted for Obama in 2008, to perhaps the most consequential loser in presidential history, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose disruptive defeat forever altered the contours of his Republican Party in ways that are still playing out today.
The Trailblazers Behind the Trump Phenomenon
Even a one-of-a-kind figure like the former reality-television star–turned–GOP nominee, Trump, is not without his precedents on the campaign trail. Some are more obvious than others: The socially conservative, nationalist strains of the Republican Party have their origins in the rift begun by Goldwater, ratified and strengthened by Reagan and also personified in another iconoclast outsider who took the GOP by storm: Pat Buchanan.
In 1992, while Trump was starring in Home Alone 2, Buchanan, the conservative pundit and thinker, was launching his own revolt against the Republican establishment — railing against free trade and immigration, proposing a fence on the Mexican border and promising to “Make America First Again.” But Trump’s route to the nomination would not have been as plausible without the paths of other contenders as well, including Ross Perot’s Independent bid in ’92 (revealing the intrinsic appeal of a self-funded, straight-talking billionaire) and Dean’s own insurgent 2004 run (challenging his party’s orthodoxy during a contentious primary).
Trump may like war heroes who weren’t captured, but to a degree, his campaign, and that very remark, owe a debt to Arizona Sen. John McCain and his Straight Talk Express, who helped usher in a new level of candor among presidential candidates. And, of course, where would the allegations of sexual assault against Trump be without the candidacy of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, whose sex scandal in 1987 opened the door to a new era of political journalism. Hart may blame his own failed run for helping lead to the two Bush presidencies, but a major silver lining, from his perspective, could be its subsequent role in taking down Trump.
Paving the Way for History
Hillary Clinton’s ascendancy, and potential place in history as the first woman president, has been aided by far more than her own husband’s presidency. From Shirley Chisholm, the black Brooklyn congresswoman who ran for president in 1972, to Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, the only two women to be nominated to a major party ticket, Clinton has followed in the footsteps of several trailblazing women. But it’s not just the female contenders that laid the foundation for Clinton’s historic run.
Like Chisholm, Jackson forever altered America’s view of what a presidential candidate should look and sound like, and also helped build the Democratic coalition of minority, women and young voters that would elect Barack Obama twice and carry over into Clinton’s 2016 run. Even the candidacies of Dukakis and Mitt Romney, both wonky technocrats with long résumés like Clinton, serve as warning signs for what happens when you fail to punch back at an opponent who attempts to define you early.
Finally, and speaking of that opponent, @thisgullyfern asks us on Twitter: How would a future episode of The Contenders cover the Trump candidacy? There would certainly be no shortage of material, and it’s difficult to say how history will judge his run. The beginning of a new era and breed of celebrity-outsider candidates? The last meaningful political convulsion of a white America retreating in size and influence?
I think one aspect of the Trump legacy, win or lose, is clear already: It will lower a number of bars when it comes to the hurdles that future contenders have to clear to be considered viable candidates. Just think of how the once-significant gaffes, misstatements and flip-flops of past presidential candidates — from Al Gore sighing in a debate to Dean’s scream to Dukakis wearing an unflattering tank helmet to Romney’s “47 percent” remark — now pale in comparison to just a single week of the 16-month Trumpathon binge we have been on.
Conversely, it will be interesting to see whether the publication of Hillary Clinton team’s emails by WikiLeaks — disastrous in any other election year — will elevate the public’s expectation of, and hunger for, transparency in its future candidates. Thanks to those leaks and FBI investigations, Clinton — one of the most notoriously guarded and private figures in politics — may have involuntarily run the most transparent campaign in modern history, though you can expect both to continue to dog her presidency and provide ammo for a recalcitrant Republican House. In the end, even a winning presidential campaign is just the end of the beginning when it comes to the political blood sport, and even if she makes it back to the White House, Clinton’s not going to be met by the garden club there, either.