From Losing to Winning

The always astute Tom Schaller has an article over at Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball discussing the unusually large contingent of current and former House members in this year's Republican presidential primaries, in which he makes this observation:

In fact, recent history actually suggests that losing an early-career bid to win a seat in the House of Representatives may be the best way to clear a path to the Oval Office. Though they didn’t realize it at the time, the three most recent presidents probably saved their political careers from dead-ending in the House by losing: Bill Clinton (AR-3) in 1974; George W. Bush (TX-19) in 1978; and Barack Obama (IL-1) in 2000.

This is something I've found interesting for a while: many of the most successful politicians experienced an electoral loss early in their careers, one often described as personally devastating. When they recovered from it, they were better politicians, and went on never (or almost never) to lose again. This is true of Clinton (who also got booted from the Arkansas governor's mansion, then won it back), Bush, Obama, and also John Kerry, who lost a race for Congress in 1972.

In politics as in so much else, failure can be much more instructive than success, mostly because success doesn't tend to breed introspection. If you won your race, there's not much incentive to take a cold, hard look at everything you did wrong and figure out how to avoid it in the future. So what about our current crop of candidates? Mitt Romney lost a 1994 Senate race to Ted Kennedy, then won the governor's mansion eight years later. Michele Bachmann lost her first race, for school board in Stillwater, MN in 1999 (not sure if that counts or not). Tim Pawlenty was a state senator and then governor, and never lost a race. Rick Perry never lost a race either, but he has the distinction of having won races for the largest number of offices among this group: he was a state representative, then agriculture commissioner, then lieutenant governor, then governor. Of course, in none of those races did he ever have to eat deep-fried butter, which is kind of like winning and losing at the same time. So we'll see.

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