History is replete with examples of political failures that lead to later success. NYT had an article on how the failures of Bill Clinton’s presidency laid the groundwork for the successes of Barack Obama’s presidency in its first two years. Along the same lines, I wrote “Why Clinton Won in 1992: Democrats Finally Learned from Their Mistakes.” The failures of Jimmy Carter’s presidency served as a model for both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on how NOT to manage their presidencies. And difficult as it is today to give John Edwards any credit for putting the pressure on Obama to push health care reform in 2008, he may deserve more credit than anyone is likely to give him.
One can see many examples of how initial failure led to later success:
- party-building. Even losing candidates help keep their parties competitive, in the volunteer and donor lists they accumulate each cycle and their efforts to see the response of voters to a diversity of ideas. It is far better to contest an elective office than to leave it uncontested or to forfeit a race, like forfeiting a game.
- the failure of the League of Nations after World War I led to the creation of the United Nations in 1946, after World War II.
- Richard Nixon’s loss of the presidency in 1960 by a painfully thin margin, to John Kennedy, led — after his defeat in the California gubernatorial campaign in 1962 — to recovering and replotting for the presidency in 1968, which was successful.
- Ronald Reagan’s half-hearted and losing campaigns for the presidency in 1968 and 1976 led to a far more focused and successful effort in 1980.
- George H.W. Bush first ran for president in 1980, was defeated in the primaries by Ronald Reagan, and given the consolation prize of the vice presidency. In 1988, he ran for president again, and won.
- Howard Dean’s innovative cyber-campaign in 2004, while it did not win him the Democratic nomination, helped Barack Obama far outpace Hillary Clinton and John McCain in online innovations in 2008.
- After losing both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time since 1946, Democrats took 16 years to fully recover and take the Presidency as well as Congress in 2008.
- After losing Congress and the Presidency in 2008, Republicans staged a great comeback, winning more than 69 House seats and 13 Senate seats from 2010 through 2014. Republicans shrewdly poured far more money into state legislative races in 2010 than Democrats did, which they won and redistricted in favor of their party after the 2010 census. They retook the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Several Democratic Senators who first won in 2008 — Kay Hagan in North Carolina; Mark Pryor in Arkansas; Mark Udall in Colorado; and Mary Landreau in Louisiana — lost in 2014.
- Party divisions and House margins. Electoral losses are frequently followed by comebacks two years later.
- 1992: With Clinton’s victory in the presidential race, Democrats hold the House by 82 seats.
- 1994: Led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans retake the House for the first time since 1946, with a 22-seat majority.
- 1996: With Clinton’s victory against Dole, Republicans lose seats, but maintain a 19-seat majority.
- 1998: Democrats anticipate a drubbing due to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but do not do badly. Republicans hold a bare 11-seat majority.
- 2000: With an almost tie between Bush and Gore, Congress is also close to tied. Republicans lose four seats, but maintain a seven-seat majority.
- 2002: With President Bush emphasizing national security concerns after 9/11, Republicans grow to a 23-seat majority.
- 2004: With Bush’s narrow victory over Kerry, Republicans grow and build a 32-seat majority.
- 2006: With the public weary of Bush and the Iraq war, Democrats win a 29-seat House majority.
- 2008: On Obama’s coattails, Democrats build on their majority, winning 79 seats.
- 2010: Reacting against Obamacare and other perceived examples of Democratic over-reach, Republicans win a 49-seat majority.
- 2012: With Obama’s five-million vote margin over Romney, Republicans lose seats but hold a 33-seat majority.
- 2014: Republicans build to a 60-seat majority.
- Notice that it’s unusual for a party to win midterm congressional elections and the presidential race to follow two years later. After Republicans in 1994 won the House for the first time since 1946, they lost the presidency in 1996. Democrats won seats in the House in 1998, but did not win the presidency in 2000. On the other hand, a midterm loss could be an omen: Democrats won the midterm elections of 2006, due in part to intense dissatisfaction with President Bush’s policies, and won the 2008 election as well, in part for the same reason.