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A party that likes its losers

April 09, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | MARK Z. BARABAK covers politics for The Times.

FORGET THE issues that divide Republicans from Democrats. Here's something else that distinguishes political red from blue: For the last 40 years, with the exception of George W. Bush, every candidate the Republicans nominated for president ran for the White House at least once before -- and lost.

Compare that with the slag-heap treatment that Democrats typically accord their presidential also-rans.

Consider, for instance, the way John McCain is regarded these days versus the way most Democrats think of John Kerry. The Arizona senator, runner-up to Bush in the bitterly fought 2000 Republican primaries, is generally considered the early front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2008. Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts, runner-up to Bush in the 2004 presidential race, is just another underdog, far back in the pack trailing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Or consider Al Gore's fate after the disputed 2000 election. "By every right, you would have thought the Democrats would have done everything possible to get Al Gore back on the ticket in 2004, since he actually won in 2000," said Peter Hart, referring to the nationwide popular vote. Instead, most Democrats exulted when the former vice president stepped aside. "We not only eat our young. We eat our old," said Hart, a Democratic strategist for more than 30 years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 23, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 3 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Elections: An April 9 article on presidential elections stated, "For the last 40 years, with the exception of George W. Bush, every candidate the Republicans nominated for president ran for the White House at least once before -- and lost." President Ford, the Republican nominee in 1976, had not run for president previously.

It's not just the difference between losing the White House and losing a party's nomination. Consider the political trajectories of two former California governors, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, who each ran for president three times.

"This party doesn't forgive defeat," said Anita Dunn, another veteran Democratic strategist. "It's almost like in the days of the old Soviet Union, where you get airbrushed out of the photo." (There are exceptions to the 40-year trend. Hubert Humphrey and Gore both ran and lost serious bids for president, and then, after serving as vice president, went on to win the Democratic nomination.)

So what is it about magnanimous Republicans, who believe in second -- even third -- chances at their party's nomination, and hardhearted Democrats, who view defeat as cause for exile? After all, aren't Democrats supposed to be the "mommy party" of caring and compassion?

This forbearance gap could just be a historic hiccup every bit as random as it is striking. But many see something deeper at work, a behavioral marker in the political DNA that makes an individual either a Republican or a Democrat.

Not surprisingly, partisans believe the angels are on their side.

Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, cited a February Pew poll that showed Republicans are happier in general than Democrats, a finding that has held constant since the nonpartisan research organization began its social survey in 1972. That, Bond said, helps explain why "our guys are viable" after running once and losing, while unsuccessful Democrats end up "in the remainder bin." As positive people, Bond said, Republicans tend to look ahead optimistically, with more confidence that the party's also-rans can bounce back.

Kenneth Khachigian, a longtime GOP strategist, said Republicans also tend to be better losers than Democrats. "Throw Dick Nixon a bouquet," said Khachigian, who joined the former president in his San Clemente exile after Nixon quit the White House.

There were suggestions that Illinois and Texas were stolen from Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, but he quickly conceded to John F. Kennedy and came back to win the presidency eight years later. (That, of course, was followed by the infamous you-won't-have-Nixon-to-kick-around news conference after losing the 1962 California governor's race to incumbent Pat Brown.) Others, like McCain, "licked their wounds and went on to look for the better day," growing in stature as a result, Khachigian said.

Ron Kaufman, White House political director under George H.W. Bush, said Republicans also tend to be more mindful of tradition and appreciative of those "who've helped build the party." "We respect folks who've paid their dues," Kaufman said. "Some would say to a fault, though it tends to work for us, because we've won the presidency more often" in recent years.

Contentment. Graciousness. Loyalty. That would explain it, Republicans say.

Democrats see things differently.

Bill Carrick, a party strategist, suggests that part of the reason Democrats are so hard on their failed candidates is that they have greater faith in government as a force for good. "They believe losing an election is just a horrible disaster," Carrick said, "that people are going to suffer."

Dunn suggests that Democrats are more searching than Republicans, more daring, more cutting-edge. "We're perpetually searching for the next big thing," she said.

Democrats are also, by their own admission, more unruly.

"We as a party tend to upset the applecart all the time," said Hart, who pointed out the party's penchant for turning away from its early presidential front-runners.

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