What happens to those who lose a presidential campaign? Some can do it with heads rightly held high, and go on to give valuable service to the nation. We were reminded of this just two weeks before the recent election, when George McGovern died. Though he underwent a humiliating defeat by Richard Nixon forty years before, he was a man of integrity, some of whose ideas were continued by people who worked in his 1972 campaign, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, veterans of his Texas office that year. McGovern was re-elected to the Senate after his presidential loss, where he performed important services, like defying the cattle, egg, and sugar lobbies to set up national dietary standards. This was a long-time commitment of his. Even before he went into the Senate, he had served as President Kennedy’s point man in the Food for Peace Program. In 1998, President Clinton appointed him his ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, where he worked effectively to curb world hunger. Above all, though he was a heroic flyer in World War II, he was a principled opponent of useless militarism.
What public service do we expect from Mitt Romney? He will no doubt return to augmenting his vast and hidden wealth, with no more pesky questions about where around the world it is stashed, or what taxes (if any) he paid, carefully sheltered from the rules his fellow citizens follow.
Barry Goldwater, after his massive defeat, stayed true enough to his principled conservatism that the modern Republican Party was a beneficiary of his legacy—a beneficiary but not the determiner of that legacy. It was Goldwater himself who told the heir to his influence, Richard Nixon, that it was time to cleanse the White House by leaving it. Though Goldwater was a factor in the Southern strategy of Nixon, he was no racist, and no fanatic of any stripe. He was an acidulous critic of the religious right and a strong advocate for women’s rights (like abortion). He had backbone.
What vestige of a backbone is Romney left with? Things he was once proud of —health-care guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination.
Other defeated candidates compiled stellar records after they lost. Two of them later won the Nobel Prize—Jimmy Carter for international diplomacy, Al Gore for his environmental advocacy. John Kerry is still an important voice for the principles he has always believed in as a Democrat. Michael Dukakis carries on as the college professor he always was, with no need to reject or rediscover any of the policies he championed. Robert Dole joined with McGovern in international nutritional projects.
None of these men engineered a wholesale repudiation of their former principles. Romney, on the contrary, did not let earlier positions grow—enriching, say, his experience of health care legislation to give his approach greater refinement or focus. He just tried to erase the whole matter from his record. He began with a promise to be to the left of Senator Kennedy on gay rights and abortion—and ended up to the right of Strom Thurmond. He decided to hire more expensive lawn care only on the principle of “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”
McGovern and Dole were war heroes. They asked what they could do for their country. Romney, who avoided military service as a missionary, said none of his sons of military age could serve because they were serving the nation by helping him, year after year, run for president. Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for your family.
Many losing candidates became elder statesmen of their parties. What lessons will Romney have to teach his party? The art of crawling uselessly? How to contemn 47 percent of Americans less privileged and beautiful than his family? How to repudiate the past while damaging the future? It is said that he will write a book. Really? Does he want to relive a five-year-long experience of degradation? What can be worse than to sell your soul and find it not valuable enough to get anything for it? His friends can only hope he is too morally obtuse to realize that crushing truth. Losing elections is one thing. But the greater loss, the real loss, is the loss of honor.