Something old has come roaring back this week, as the media suddenly remembers that George W. Bush and Mitt Romney were people we used to care about. Bush and Romney exemplify two very different responses to not being president — and Romney's is much less flattering.
No one is suggesting that every failed presidential candidate should be resilient and magnanimous after the fact. As with any disappointment, it's tricky. But it's been done before with grace and cleverness, providing some lesson for those who find themselves in that unenviable position. We identified five ways in which recent presidential losers have responded. We'll start with Romney's, which is perhaps the worst.
The Sad Sack
Romney popped back into sight last week when President Obama — in an obviously trolly move — decided to head to Boston to compare the slow start of Obamacare to Romney's signature health care legislation. Romney didn't appreciate it. But the Boston Globe used the opportunity to do a fuller check-in with the two-time candidate.
At first, Romney went into analytical mode, meeting with former campaign aides to put together an internal review of why he lost. They put less blame on personal missteps, such as Romney’s comment that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, and more on missed strategic opportunities …
Romney has spent much of the past year focusing on his extended family, which has grown this year by four grandchildren. In June, he drove to a car dealership in New Hampshire and traded in his 2005 red Mustang convertible for a 15-passenger Ford Econoline van.
You can imagine the heavy sighs that accompany these paragraphs. The Globe is wrong on one point: at first, Romney appeared in an informal series of Instagram photos showing him moping around gas stations and grocery stores. Sad. Romney selling a sports car for a van to drive his grandkids around? Sadder. Somewhat buried in the Globe story is that Romney is "hoping to influence the direction of the party by creating what he called a 'small' political action committee." The idea that by investing a bit of money he can still help shape a party that had already essentially moved to the right out of his grasp when he ran last year? Saddest of all.
In that, he joins other lovable former presidential campaign losers. Last September, 1996 candidate Bob Dole wrote an article about the aftermath of his loss. "Sure, losing an election hurts," he wrote, "but I’ve experienced worse. And at an age when every day is precious, brooding over what might have been is self-defeating." Dole was joined by losing candidates Walter Mondale (1984) and Michael Dukakis (1988) in a reminiscence at Yahoo last year. Dole went on a trip after losing. Mondale "went on a fishing trip or something." Dukakis spent time with family.
But few embody the sad-sack response to loss better than Al Gore. After losing the electoral vote in 2000, the former senator and vice president grew a beard and put on weight, retreating into himself. For a few years.
Gore reemerged into the public eye with the launch of An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film that brought the effects of climate change into the public eye. The candidate's long-standing environmental leaning became his path, somewhat unexpectedly, to an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize.
That's a path similar to the one undertaken by Jimmy Carter, who lost his reelection to the presidency in 1980. Carter, too, won a Nobel after his loss — his in 2002, for his (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to bring peace to the Middle East. Carter's perhaps best known, though, for his work with Habitat For Humanity, the non-profit focused on building new homes for those living in substandard housing.
After the bitterly contested 2000 race, it seemed likely that Gore might take a more active role in opposing George W. Bush, the man who defeated him. Instead, that role was assumed by John McCain, one of the other men Bush beat that year. In the aftermath of 2000, McCain prioritized campaign finance reform, in part as an effort to rebut some of the tactics that Bush and his campaign team used to ensure his defeat in South Carolina. In the aftermath of his 2008 loss, McCain was less adamant in opposition, in part, it seems, relishing his role as outgoing leader of the Republican Party.
John Kerry similarly got a bit of revenge on Bush after his 2004 loss — albeit more subtlely. Kerry, who returned to his safe Senate seat, was a reliable vote against Bush's policies, as he had been before the election. His ultimate revenge developed only this year, with his ascension to the position of Secretary of State, validation of the foreign policy expertise that the Bush campaign — and the Super PACs empowered by campaign finance reform — turned into a negative on the campaign trail.
We aren't quite done with Al Gore. Phase three of his recovery was that Al Gore became very, very wealthy — what Bloomberg famously called "Romney-rich." His investment in Current TV and position on the board of Apple Computers translated into financial windfalls putting his net worth, for a time, somewhere north of $200 million. Unlike other presidential contenders (like Romney), Gore's bank account had room to grow.
The Life of Quiet Solitude, a.k.a. The Blithely Unaware Artist
The man Gore beat in the popular vote in 2000 has taken another post-campaign role, though, granted, he did spend eight years as president. The New York Times checked in on W over the weekend. Still doing the painting thing, which we've celebrated in the past, but with a new goal: Bush wants to "produce portraits of 19 foreign presidents and prime ministers he worked with during his time in the White House."
Nearly five years after leaving office, the nation’s 43rd president lives a life of self-imposed exile in Texas, more interested in painting than politics, recovering from a heart scare, privately worried about the rise of the Tea Party, golfing with fervor, bicycling with wounded veterans and enjoying a modest revival in public opinion.
This is somewhat similar to the post-loss life of his father, whose afterlife included skydiving, fancy socks, and a shaved head. Just going about their lives, doing their things, neither particularly aggrieved about legacy or the men that replaced them.
We're now prepared to draw a crucial lesson from the above reactions. One of the key ways to assure that your response to a presidential loss will be gracious or quiet (see: "Activist" / "Quiet Solitude") is to also win a presidential election. May that serve as a guide to future presidential losers.