As the latest wave of presidential candidates enters what will likely be a huge Republican field, something occurs to me: It has almost become conventional wisdom that running for president is a “win-win” proposition—that, at the very least, you increase your visibility by virtue of running. At least, that seems to be how modern candidates view it. And there certainly are examples where this is true. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, for example, was able to parlay a surprisingly strong 2008 run into larger celebrity (and his own Fox News show!).
Yet I suspect we tend to underestimate the downside of running for president. Let’s consider the 2012 GOP field, which included Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and of course Mitt Romney. And to recap: Perry said “oops,” Huntsman’s campaign never took off and he lost his ambassadorship to China, Bachmann isn’t even in Congress today, Santorum’s hard-won second place finish hasn’t set him up well for 2016, Cain was ripped apart after a sex scandal, Paul (and Bachmann!) had serious issues with the FEC, and Newt lost his think tank.You tell me—are they better off now than they were four years ago?
We know that running for president is an emotionally grueling experience. The documentary Mitt showed what an ordeal 2008 and 2012 was for all the Romneys—the tears and sweat leading to yet more tears and public mockery. When you run for president, the entire media industry sees you (and, often, your family) as fair game. And that doesn’t just mean news outlets: it means comedians, movies, the stars of those movies, Saturday Night Live, talk-show hosts, the entire Internet.
People have their lives destroyed by all this scrutiny. Cain never successfully rebutted the sexual harassment charges. Marcus Bachman’s sexual orientation became a national punch line. Mitt’s “creepy sons” became an SNL skit. Even Joe Biden, who parlayed his unsuccessful run into the vice presidency, will never escape the shadow of Onion Joe Biden—he’s been a senator since Nixon, a true statesman in many ways, or at least someone with that potential, and he’s spent the last six years as a running joke.
You can even win the nomination and forever be seen as a loser. We’ll always think of Michael Dukakis as Snoopy in that tank. George McGovern will always be the guy who got wiped out by Nixon—as a name synonymous with Democratic nightmare scenarios.
There’s an old line—made famous by the controversial English politician Enoch Powell—that says “All political lives…end in failure…” That’s largely true, and when you run for president and lose, that failure happens on the world stage. You have gone before your fellow Americans, made your case, and watched as tens of millions of people took a good long look at you and said no thanks. The myth that running for president is always smart—that all publicity is good publicity and that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take—is at odds with another truism that says you’d have to be nuts to run for president. And that maxim is proven right almost every day.
So there are dangerous downsides to running for president, particularly for those who have a lot to lose. And this includes people who have to give up a job to run—like, say, a Fox News gig. And if you have a positive—or possibly inflated—reputation, you’ll likely watch that evaporate as well. Even if the opposition researchers and the media don’t get you (see Herman Cain), there’s a chance that you’ll slip up, amid the sleep deprivation and the glare of cameras and bright lights. There’s always the potential you could be exposed as someone who isn’t as charismatic or knowledgeable as everyone suspected. In fact, it’s pretty easy to leave the impression that you’re kind of dumb.
This raises questions about the candidates running in 2016. Should they? If one were betting, Carly Fiorina seems the most likely to benefit from a candidacy doomed to defeat. She’s sharp, smart, wealthy, and really has little to lose—and, perhaps, a cabinet position (or more) to gain.
Conversely, Ben Carson—a highly respected neurosurgeon seen as a hero to the African-American community—has a lot to lose, reputation-wise. Right now, he’s one of the most respected men in America. In a year, he could easily be one of the most polarizing.
And let’s take the aforementioned most recent entrant into the field: Until recently, Mike Huckabee had a cushy gig as a TV show host. Now he’s flung himself into the wood chipper we call a political campaign. But here’s the real question: What’s he going to be doing a year from now?
There’s little doubt that Huckabee is a talented pol whose potential as a disruptive force in the 2016 race shouldn’t be underestimated. But even if he deprives someone else from winning Iowa, one suspects that if a) it’s hard to get lightning to strike twice, and b) as Philip Klein writes, “Even if Huckabee equals his 2008 performance, he won’t build on it.” There’s a natural ceiling for a guy like Huck, who is still despised by large segments of the party.
And he’s not alone. It’s at least possible that Senator Marco Rubio could be completely out of politics after 2016—if he loses the nomination and doesn’t somehow switch back to his Senate re-election (no doubt, he would land on his feet in the private sector). But at least Rubio has something to win; it’s actually quite plausible he could be the nominee.
That’s one of the things that makes this time around unique. We still have candidates who are running to raise their profile, but there are also a lot of candidates who could actually win. Scott Walker also has a legitimate shot at winning—and he has little to lose by trying. Jeb Bush, of course, is what passes for a front-runner, but one wonders what it would be like to be the one Bush who tries, and fails, to become president? Meanwhile, Ted Cruz’s team can hold out hope that a primary defeat in 2016 would be analogous to Reagan’s defeat in 1976. This may be wishful thinking, but it’s not an absurd rationalization.
But, as it turns out, there’s a pretty narrow window for people who think they can win by losing. The candidates with the most to gain are the ones with underrated charisma and intelligence—and little to lose. The problem here is that the candidates themselves are the ones making this initial evaluation. As Richard Feyman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Note: Matt Lewis’ wife previously consulted on Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign, and currently consults for RickPAC.