In prison, the darkest moment comes when the prison guards come to your cell with a clergyman, and a menu.
In pro football, the fear and trembling comes when an assistant says, “Coach wants to see you—and bring your playbook.”
And in presidential politics, you know you have stumbled into the Slough of Despond when one of your staffers, averting his eyes, tells you: “I’m afraid you are being awarded the Lady Byng Trophy.”
“Hold it!” I hear at least some of you saying. “That’s the award the National Hockey League gives out every year to the ‘player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.’”
True; there is, of course, no formal political equivalent of the Lady Byng Trophy. But, as I wrote in 2011 in Politico, “instead, every four years, the press corps dubs one candidate the exemplar of tough, honest, truth-telling, willing to confront his or her party’s orthodoxies with a cold blast of reality. That candidate wins praise from columnists; a warm embrace from a news magazine; admiring profiles on network news shows.”
So why is this unofficial honor the certain mark of failure? Because, unlike the hockey prize, often awarded to champions like Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretzky, and Martin St. Louis, the political Lady Byng winner never never, ever, wins a presidential nomination.
Look at the list:
• Representative John Anderson in 1980 told Republicans it would take “smoke and mirrors” to cut taxes and reduce the deficit; he lost every GOP primary, then emerged as an independent who, in late spring, was competitive with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In November, he won 6 percent of the vote.
• In 1988, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt told Democrats that entitlements could not keep on expanding. Journalists fell over themselves to praise his candor, his wit, his thoughtfulness. He won a bit more than one-third of 1 percent of the New Hampshire vote and dropped out.
• In 1992, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who had pretty much the same message as Babbitt, actually won the New Hampshire primary (though Bill Clinton captured the media spotlight as “the comeback kid”). While Tsongas was denouncing the “pandering” of his foes, Clinton more or less told Florida voters that Tsongas’s Social Security ideas would consign them to penury, and blew his rival away.
• In 1996, Senator Richard Lugar staked his presidential candidacy on the issue of nuclear proliferation. For a time, you could have concluded from the press that the senator’s full name was “Thoughtful Richard Lugar”… an honorific based both on his issues and his civil demeanor. After a string of primary finishes between 1 and 5 percent (OK, he did get 14% of the Vermont vote), Lugar withdrew.
• Perhaps most memorably, Senator John McCain in 2000 stunned favorite George W. Bush in New Hampshire by taking his “Straight Talk Express” across the state, arguing against huge tax cuts for the affluent and for tough campaign finance reform. He won the hearts and minds of the press by putting every moment of his campaign on the record, and with a puckish sense of humor. (He half-jokingly called the media “my base.”) But a brutal campaign in South Carolina left McCain fatally weakened.
And last time? The hands-down 2012 winner was John Huntsman, former Utah governor and Ambassador to China. Huntsman entered the race pledging to avoid negative campaigning. (“I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the office of president,” he said.) He endorsed the notion of man-made climate change, backed the economic stimulus plan, and had served as Obama’s envoy to Beijing. (“If you love your country, you serve her,” he said.). All this made him, in the words of at least two profiles, “the media’s favorite Republican,” but after a third-place finish in New Hampshire and a seventh-place showing in South Carolina, he dropped out.
Why this consistent pattern of media celebration and political defeat? In large measure, it’s because the very qualities that attract praise from the commentariat all but ensure failure at the polls.
A Lady Byng candidate is almost always without funds, with a skeleton staff, and little public recognition—significant handicaps for an extended primary campaign. Moreover, a Lady Byng Contender by definition must challenge the base of his or her own party; unsurprisingly, the base almost always responds by enthusiastically embracing a candidate more likely to reassure, than to challenge; and it’s the base that shows up more often than not on primary day. (It’s no coincidence that no Democratic Lady Byng winner had any significant support among minority voters.)
And the same civil demeanor that makes editorial pages swoon may not play well with a primary electorate that welcomes a tough-talking, combative candidate: the “I-want-a-tough-S.O.B.-to protect-my tribe” constituency. (This is one reason why Bill Clinton did not win the 1992 Byng in spite of his break with Democratic orthodoxy on crime and welfare.)
So looking at the 2016 field, who are the potential Lady Byng contenders?
On the Democratic side, you might think the obvious choice is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, with his uncharismatic charisma, his Noo Yawk accent, his challenges to Hillary Clinton’s progressive credibility. But Sanders is, in fact, not challenging the Democratic base, but trying to rally it. I’m the legitimate heir to FDR, JFK and RFK, he is arguing. I’m the candidate of unions and a higher minimum wage and soaking the rich.
No, if you’re looking for a base-challenging, hard-truth-telling candidate, it’s most likely ex-Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who, as I noted recently, has serious differences with his base on matters ranging from guns to the legacy of Vietnam.
As for the Republicans, you will not likely find any of the 15—or 17—or, by the time you read, this 34—candidates who will challenge the Republican canon on taxes or abortion or the Iran deal. You will, however, find South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham praising his political adversaries—“If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, you probably have to do some self-evaluation.”
You’ll find Ohio Governor John Kasich arguing in favor of Medicaid expansion, and arguing that government programs, properly structured, can change people’s lives for the better. (“I think I have the right to define what it means to be a conservative,” he told a small group of journalists last spring.) On the other hand, Kasich’s communication style—blunt, tough, sometimes strikingly combative—may disqualify him.
And in the coming months, you might find words of praise for the lonely, cash-strapped, King Canute campaign of Rick Santorum, or even—and yes, this is the longest of longshots—the emergence of Rick Perry as a better-prepared, more nuanced candidate than the 2012 version.
It will be months before we know the winner of the political Lady Byng. But here’s what we know for sure: Whoever the “winner” is should start working immediately on a concession speech.