On election night in 1896, a friend watched William Jennings Bryan struggling to conceal his disappointment after losing to William McKinley.
“It is a terrible thing,” the friend wrote, “to look upon a strong man in the pride of youth and see him gather up in his hands the ashes of a great ambition.”
Come Nov. 6, either President Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will gather those same ashes in his hands. The losing presidential candidate will have received the support of nearly half the nation’s voters and, still in the prime of life, will face the question: So, what do I do now?
Bryan was just 36, so his answer was to run for president, and lose, twice more. But running again seems an unlikely option for the 65-year-old Romney. The last losing presidential nominee to run again and win his party’s endorsement was Richard Nixon in 1968.
Nor does it seem probable that the 51-year-old Obama would follow the example of Grover Cleveland, the only president denied reelection who later ran again, winning his rematch with Benjamin Harrison in 1892. (That is, unless Obama faces similar circumstances: Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888 but lost in the Electoral College.)
Nor would Obama be likely to emulate John Quincy Adams or Andrew Johnson, the only presidents to hold elective office post-presidency. Adams was beseeched by his neighbors to represent them in Congress just two years after being turned out of the White House in 1828. Johnson failed to win election to Congress before the Tennessee legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate.
Should Obama lose, he, like almost every ex-president since FDR, would probably establish his presidential library, along with a foundation, through which he can remain engaged in world affairs. Like former vice president Al Gore, he could win the Nobel Prize — but then, he already has, hasn’t he?
There is no similar template for Romney. He would struggle, like others who have lost recent presidential elections, to establish himself as an elder statesman of his party. No losing candidate has been recognized as the titular head of a party since Adlai Stevenson performed that function for the Democrats in the 1950s.
A high Cabinet appointment in a future administration was once almost the due of a party’s unsuccessful candidate, but the last losing presidential nominee to be honored with such a post was Charles Evans Hughes, who served as secretary of state in the Harding and Coolidge administrations before returning to the Supreme Court in 1930 as chief justice. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, appears to be trying to renew this tradition, however; he seems to be campaigning to be Obama’s next secretary of state, a job currently occupied by another former presidential candidate.
Many losing presidential nominees just go back to their old jobs — often, like Kerry and John McCain, in Congress. But Romney has been out of elective office for almost six years and, possessing a considerable fortune, seems equally unlikely to return to the world of business. With 18 grandchildren, it seems likely that Romney’s focus would be more on his family and faith than the future of the GOP.
Former New York governor Al Smith, who lost the 1928 election, thought that the losing presidential candidate should be made a U.S. senator-at-large so that the wisdom gained from a national campaign could be used to benefit the country.That idea never caught on.
But even if Romney were to try to stay active in politics, he would discover, as previous losing candidates have, that he would be treated differently by colleagues: You are no longer the future of the party; you’re a reminder of a past failure.
Consider poor Hubert Humphrey, who was not only one of the 20th century’s most influential senators but also vice president under Lyndon Johnson. He could not get elected Democratic leader in the Senate after his loss to Nixon in 1968. Out of a combination of respect and pity, his peers created an honorary post just for Humphrey: deputy president pro tem, a position that came with a driver and a nice office but no real authority.
Of course, there is always the opportunity to begin a new career.
After losing to George H.W. Bush in 1988, Michael Dukakis finished his term as governor of Massachusetts and then began teaching at UCLA and Northeastern University, which he has called “the best work I’ve ever done.” And James M. Cox, who with running mate Franklin Roosevelt lost in a landslide to Warren Harding in 1920, went back to the newspaper business and built a media empire, Cox Enterprises, that remains one of America’s 10 largest media companies.
Hopefully, Obama or Romney will avoid the less-than-happy post-campaign experiences of some losing candidates. The great explorer John C. Fremont, whose performance as the first Republican presidential nominee paved the way for Abraham Lincoln, made a fortune and then lost it, becoming nearly destitute before winning a sinecure as governor of the Arizona Territory near the end of his life.
No one fared worse, however, than Horace Greeley, whose wife died six days before he lost to Ulysses S. Grant in 1872; who lost financial control of his beloved newspaper, the New York Tribune, the week after the election; and who then died three weeks later.
Whether it is Obama or Romney, the loser will probably find himself stuck in a limbo well described by Thomas Dewey, the also-ran of 1944 and 1948, who said the feeling of losing the presidency is like that of a drunk who passes out at a wake.
“If I am alive,” the drunk thinks upon coming to, “what am I doing in this coffin? If I am dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?”
Scott Farris is the author of “Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation.”