"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, and his line has often been applied to politics. There’s a lot of truth in it, as Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann may be about to discover.
In the past week, both made news talking about their possible futures. Romney, the GOP’s defeated 2012 nominee, told The Wall Street Journal he still hopes to "help shape national priorities," though he conceded, "I don’t look at myself as the person best equipped to prescribe where the party should go, going forward."
And Bachmann, the conservative GOP Minnesota congresswoman, said she won’t seek re-election next year but that did not mean ruling out any "future option or opportunity" to "help save or protect our great nation for future generations."
This week, a number of top Republicans are attending Romney’s latest gatherings of top GOP politicians and fundraisers at a Utah resort. But don’t read too much into that.
Most Republicans would no sooner seek political guidance from Romney than they would from George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, though they’ll be happy to enjoy his largesse or take his money to help finance their campaigns. And the emergence of Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as the GOP right’s new voices means that the verbal accident-prone Bachmann is as likely to be as ignored as the sage of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin.
It’s generally been that way. Americans tend to discard defeated or discredited politicians the way they traditionally replaced last year’s car model with next year’s. While Richard Nixon gained the presidency after he ruled himself out of politics and John Kerry and Hillary Clinton found new life in the Obama administration, they are exceptions, rather than the rule.
All you have to look at are one-time prominent figures such as Al Gore, Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson to find politicians who were ignored by their parties after being either defeated or blamed for their party’s defeat.
There are several reasons.
Some rejected hopefuls are outspoken advocates of policy positions the country rejects. That list would include a liberal Democrat like McGovern, the antiwar favorite of 1972; conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, the iconoclastic conservative of 1964; and the array of conservative hopefuls, from Bachmann to Newt Gingrich, who unsuccessfully sought the 2012 GOP nomination.
To the extent their defeat was seen as a rejection of their ideas, it prompted their party to seek a more centrist course in the future. Whether the current GOP has learned that lesson remains to be seen.
Another group includes the veteran politicians who finally achieved their party’s nomination, sometimes after several tries, only to lose against a more forward-looking or charismatic rival. That list might include Gore, whom many Democrats thought should have won in 2000; Dole, the GOP loser against Bill Clinton in 1996; Walter Mondale, routed by Ronald Reagan in 1984; and Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee who might have been the most boring nominee of modern times.
It also includes Romney, who sacrificed any future influence by running a bad campaign that strengthened perception of the GOP as a narrow party without appeal to such growing voter groups as minorities and younger voters.
Finally, there are the former presidents whose problems prompted their party to ignore them after they left office.
George W. Bush, seen as a major factor in the GOP’s 2008 defeat, was missing in action during the 2012 campaign, largely by making a choice that reflected his realistic reading of the situation. Democrats ignored Carter for years after his 1980 defeat. And four decades after Lyndon Johnson’s mishandling of the Vietnam War helped cost Democrats the presidency in 1968, his party showed the film marking his 100th birthday before prime time, part of its continuing effort to ignore his presidency.
Exceptions are fewer. Clinton, whose presidency achieved a lot less than Johnson’s, has taken advantage of his successors’ troubles to remain a popular figure among Democrats. Many Republicans still yearn for the days of Reagan.
Most American politicians have a short half-life, especially defeated ones.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorfgmail.com.