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‘The Contenders’ a Nod to Failed Candidates Who Still Changed History

September 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
A new C-SPAN series starting this month called "The Contenders" profiles failed presidential candidates who still managed to change political history. Gwen Ifill discusses the presidential race losers with George Mason University's Richard Norton Smith and RealClearPolitics.com's Carl Cannon.
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TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in this political season, we turn to campaigns past and ask, are there reasons to remember the losers?

A new C-SPAN series looks at failed presidential candidates who changed history.

Gwen Ifill explains.

GWEN IFILL: U.S. presidential campaigns always produce a winner — 43 men have served, one of them twice, as the nation’s commander in chief.

History books pay less attention to the losers, even though many had an outsized impact on the election and on the national debate. A good number of them turned out to be ahead of their times.

Beginning Sept. 9, a new C-SPAN series titled “The Contenders: They Ran and Lost but Changed Political History,” will examine 14 of the losers who turned out to be influential, even in defeat.

Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, is an adviser to the series, and Carl Cannon is Washington editor for the political website RealClearPolitics.com.

Richard Norton Smith, isn’t the point to win? Why do we care about the losers?

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, it has famously been said, the winners write the history books. And there’s a lot of truth to that.

Turns out winning and losing are relative terms. Of these 14 people, there are a number — we could debate who — who went on, perhaps, ultimately to have greater impact than the people who — quote — “won.”

More important, there are people who lost in the immediate sense, but who turned out not only to be ahead of their time, but in fact were catalysts for political transformations, the most recent example certainly being Barry Goldwater, who carried six states against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and yet who planted the seeds of a conservative movement that arguably has yet to crest.

GWEN IFILL: Carl Cannon, who are your favorite catalysts, when you look back over these 14?

CARL CANNON, RealClearPolitics.com: Well, Barry Goldwater is hard to top.

But a more recent wanna-be president was Ross Perot. And he — he finishes third. He doesn’t do much. He doesn’t carry a single state. But he plants a seed, and the seed he plants is, the government is spending too much money.

And you can’t go to one of these Tea Party rallies or even a Republican gathering today without hearing things you heard in Ross Perot’s 1996 campaign and his 1992 campaign.

GWEN IFILL: And he got 20 percent of the vote. So, without that, Bill Clinton may not have been president.

CARL CANNON: Well, that’s right.

Bill Clinton — you know, there was a period there where Bill Clinton, most of the summer of 1992, was running third behind George H. — President George H.W. Bush and Perot, and then Perot dropped out of the race for a while, and then Bill Clinton picked Al Gore.

They had the best, most unified Democratic Convention in my lifetime. Clinton emerges from that in the number-one spot. And I don’t know that Bill Clinton has ever trailed a Republican in a head-to-head poll since then.

GWEN IFILL: All thanks to the guy who lost.

So, let’s go back, Richard. Would any of these losers have made good presidents?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, a number of them.

I think Henry Clay may be the best president we never had.

GWEN IFILL: Why is that?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, Abraham Lincoln said, “He was my beau ideal of a statesman.”

He was a constructive force first part of the 19th century. He’s the bridge between Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, the idea that government had a significant role to play. I mean, it’s curious. Conservatives in the 19th century believed in using government as an agent of capitalist development.

GWEN IFILL: Not so much now.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Just the opposite.

Clay was like the speaker of the House on the day he arrived in the House of Representatives, he, of course, known as the great compromiser. The last one in 1850 arguably delayed the Civil War for 10 years, which gave the North an opportunity to become that much stronger, and, equally important, allowed Abraham Lincoln to emerge from obscurity.

GWEN IFILL: Let me throw out a couple of names.

I will start with you again, Richard.

Al Smith.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Al Smith, in many ways, is the father of the modern Democratic Party. Before Franklin Roosevelt, Al Smith.

Do you know the last Republican presidential candidate to carry New York City? Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Four years later, the candidate is Al Smith, a Catholic, with the immigrant experience, the modern — before the New Deal, it’s Al Smith who is beginning to forge this coalition, then also rejecting the old Jefferson-Jackson small government.

Democrats in the 19th century believed in small government. Al Smith, as a legislator and governor of New York, believed in the progressive agenda, and, in many ways, laid the groundwork for Franklin Roosevelt.

GWEN IFILL: Carl, Adlai Stevenson.

CARL CANNON: Stevenson is an egghead, famously.

And he runs against Dwight Eisenhower, loses to him twice, in 1952 and 1956. And after it’s over, the Democrats sort of decide, oh, the public isn’t ready for an egghead. The Republicans decide this, too. And Dwight Eisenhower, as president, begins to very subtly and surreptitiously dumb down his speeches.

And so Fred Greenstein, the great political scientist who wrote “The Hidden-Hand Presidency,” documented this many years later, but it leads to a series of presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who are famously supposedly not as smart as the people they defeat.

Well, so — and the point is, is that the public — both parties realize that the public prefers street smarts in a president maybe to book smarts.

GWEN IFILL: What about the vice presidents who ran and lost, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, people who were supposed to be anointed to rise?

CARL CANNON: Well, Hubert is the president that — you asked Richard who he thought would have been the best president that never was. And Hubert Humphrey would be my answer to that.

Hubert is a heroic figure in American history, I would say largely forgotten now by the young generation. He is the one who leads — leads the way at the 1948 convention, Democrats. He’s mayor of Minneapolis, and he lays down the gauntlet to those who said that don’t rush civil rights. And he said, we’re not rushing civil rights. We’re 170 years too late, and it’s time for the Democratic Party to emerge from the shadow of states’ rights and march forthrightly into the sunshine of human rights.

This is the man who looks like all along he is going to be president. He is elected Senate – to the Senate that year. He then becomes the vice president. Johnson picks him as vice president. But the Vietnam War bogs him down. He loses his voice as vice president and never becomes president.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, who is the most consequential losing candidate who most people have never heard of?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, that’s — that’s a great question.

Charles Evans Hughes.

GWEN IFILL: That’s true. I have never heard of him.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: A very successful governor of New York, reformer beginning in the 20th century. Then he was put on the Supreme Court, left the court in 1916 to run a very close race against Woodrow Wilson.

He went back to service in the 1920s as secretary of state under two presidents. But his greatest contribution, arguably, his greatest historical significance, came in 1937 when FDR tried famously to pack the Supreme Court. Hughes was then chief justice. Employing all of his old political wiles, he almost single-handedly managed to thwart the president’s effort to change the court in a way that I think a lot of people today, and certainly even then, regarded as radical.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible that any of these people we’re talking about here today could have actually changed the course of history, or were they just ahead of their times, and this wasn’t to be?

CARL CANNON: Let me turn that around a minute.

Henry Clay could not have prevented the Civil War. And one of the lessons — we don’t want to be too — Richard and I both think this series is a wonderful idea, but we don’t want to be too Pollyannish here. One of the lessons of history is that there are larger forces at stake.

The great compromiser could not have prevented that war. And so they also remind us, the winners, as well as the losers, that there are inexorable forces in American history, and that one person can only do so much.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But to delay it was a major contribution.

The — Tom Dewey, someone who tends to be written off as the guy who…

GWEN IFILL: Lost by just a little bit.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: … who lost to Harry Truman.

If Tom Dewey had been elected in 1948, I would — I think you would never have heard of Joe McCarthy.

GWEN IFILL: Because?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Two things.

One, Dewey is a prosecutor. The first national political debate in America was in 1948. Tom Dewey in Oregon against Harold Stassen, the question being, shall we outlaw the Communist Party of America? And Dewey, ironically, the old prosecutor, took the civil libertarian position.

But, beyond that, Dewey was a boss. He was used to having his way. Joe McCarthy wouldn’t have been allowed to become the phenomenon that he had. Dewey would have taken care of it, and Dewey would have cut McCarthy off at the knees.

GWEN IFILL: Fascinating. All fascinating. We will watch it on C-SPAN.

Richard Norton Smith, Carl Cannon, thank you both so much.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Thank you.