2nd chances are rare in presidential politics

Most of us get several second chances. At work, in a relationship, in a longtime friendship ... damage happens but often can be repaired.

Presidential politics, however, is usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now. Few candidates resurface after defeat to win the highest office in the land.

Hillary Clinton is perhaps the best example. She was the odds-on favorite to be elected in 2008. Democrats seemed likely to win, with President George W. Bush leaving after two terms, Vice President Dick Cheney not running and all signs pointing to change.

But Clinton, in a foreshadowing of her 2016 general election campaign, didn’t lock up the win, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a fresh face in national politics, edged her out for the nomination and was elected. Clinton was able to win the nod eight years later, but once again lost to a newcomer who called for change, Donald Trump.

Clinton has dropped some hints about running in 2020, but the reaction from many Democrats is, no thanks. She had two chances and was the clear favorite both times. Her time seems to have passed.

Obama and Trump won in their first runs for president. History suggests we look for someone like that in either 2020, if a Democrat can unseat Trump, or 2024, if the president can overcome low approval ratings and mounting evidence of criminal behavior in the 2016 campaign.

There are some candidates trying to make the second time a charm. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination again, after finishing second to Clinton four years ago. Sanders has a nationwide base, ample campaign funds and ready access to the media, but he will be 79 in 2020 and his liberal policies are shared by other progressive candidates. He could be the nominee, but recent elections show he’s running uphill.

Republican Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is now a Utah senator, sought the nomination in 2008, got it in 2012 and gave Obama a close race. He likely would run in 2020 if Trump is sidelined for one reason or another, but would a third time be a charm?

John McCain was the Republican nominee in 2008, but Obama defeated him handily. McCain was perhaps a stronger candidate in 2000, but Bush was able to win the GOP nomination. 

Bob Dole, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1976, ran for president in 1980 and 1988 before finally being the party’s choice in 1996.

But Dole’s campaign stumbled repeatedly and Bill Clinton easily defeated him. Dole had resigned his Senate seat during the race, sidelining him from national politics.

Richard Nixon was a rare candidate who found success in a second bid. He ran for president in 1960 and lost a razor-close election to John F. Kennedy, with Nixon and other Republicans wondering if votes in Illinois and Texas weren’t “counted” in JFK’s favor. 

Nixon then lost an ill-considered race for California governor in 1962, which ended with him announcing he was leaving politics and reporters “won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.”

But his wounds healed, politics shifted and Nixon was elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. He came all the way back, only to engage in criminal acts that forced him to resign in 1974.

In the past, presidential candidates often were recycled. Republicans nominated Tom Dewey of New York in 1944 and 1948, but he lost to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the first time and was upset by President Harry S. Truman in his second bid.

Democrats chose Sen. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois in both 1952 and 1956, but he lost to Dwight Eisenhower both times. Stevenson sought the nomination again late in the 1960 season, but Democrats decided twice was enough.

Hubert Humphrey, a South Dakota native who twice served as a senator from Minnesota as well as vice from 1965-69, ran for president in 1960, losing to JFK in the primaries, in 1968, when he won the nomination but lost to Nixon, and again in 1972, losing to his old friend and fellow South Dakotan George McGovern for the Democratic nomination. He came close several times but never won the prize he longed for so badly.

Democrat William Jennings Bryant was the party’s nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908, losing all three times. Bryant, running under both the Democratic and Populist banners, came close in 1896, but was soundly trounced in his other two races.

Kentucky’s Henry Clay was a political power for more than four decades. He ran for president in 1824 as the nominee of the Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner of the modern Democratic Party, but finished fourth in a crowded field. Clay, the speaker of the House, expected a race tossed into the House, as the Constitution provides, and thought he would be able to persuade enough congressmen to support him.

But he didn’t expect to finish fourth, since only the top three advanced. That prevented him from becoming president. He tried again, now as a Whig, in 1840 and 1844, but lost both times.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is considered likely to enter the Democratic contest, and he will outdo Clay for perseverance. Biden was running for the 1988 nomination when reports of plagiarism derailed his campaign in 1987 and he exited the race. Soon, a pair of brain aneurysms nearly killed him.

Biden recovered and sought the presidency again in 2008, finishing well behind Obama and Clinton. He pondered a run in 2016, but his son Beau’s health problems — he died of brain cancer in 2015 — caused him step aside in favor of Clinton.

Now, although he will turn 78 days after the 2020 election, Biden is once again eyeing the White House. His age will be an issue, and working through a packed field of Democrats will be a challenge as well.

Trying to win on his third run may end up being the hurdle he can’t clear. American voters, like car buyers, seem to prefer someone shiny new, not a used model.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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