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Is Losing a Winning Strategy?

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” a devastated Richard Nixon said on election night 1962, after losing his bid to become governor of California.

Boy, was he wrong.

Six years later, a triumphant Nixon — the “New Nixon,” they called him then — claimed the White House.

Traumatized by his back-to-back losses in the harshest glare of the public spotlight — he also had narrowly lost the 1960 presidential contest to John F. Kennedy — Nixon retrenched and retooled, said Roger Morris, a Nixon biographer. Convinced that the 1960 presidential contest was stolen from him, Nixon, whose previous campaigns were hard-fought to the point of nastiness but basically ideological in the end, turned to gimmickry and dirty tricks.

“Nixon attributed his [1960] defeat to the dirty tricks of the Democratic Party, which he felt in a sense justified him doing the same thing,” Morris said.

But Nixon was hardly alone on the road from political oblivion to political nirvana. Beginning with Nixon, five of the past six elected U.S. presidents entered the Oval Office after losing major political races earlier in their careers.

For George W. Bush, it was a West Texas House race in 1978. For his father, it was two Texas Senate races, in 1964 and 1970 (not to mention his loss to Ronald Reagan for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination).

Bill Clinton lost a tight race for an Arkansas Congressional seat in 1974, and then, after becoming the youngest governor in the nation in 1978, he became the youngest ex-governor in the nation in 1980. (He won his seat back two years later and served until he won the White House.) And Jimmy Carter lost a bid for governor of Georgia in 1966 — a job he won in 1970.

And the tradition continues: No fewer than nine of the possible 2008 presidential contenders have also lost political races in the not-so-distant past, though the two parties’ nominal frontrunners — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — are not among them.

And losing isn’t just a habit of presidents-to-be. Today’s Congress is chock-full of Members who suffered defeats at the polls, sometimes more than once. In the Senate alone, no fewer than 40 Members, by Roll Call’s count, lost political races at some point in their careers — and that doesn’t include Senators who have made unsuccessful bids for their party’s presidential nominations. In nine states, both Senators were former losers before reaching the pinnacle of success.

The Senators’ losses span the generations, from the loss by now-Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a state House election back in 1956 to the razor-thin defeat of then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in 2002 that Thune avenged two years later. They range from losing a race for the White House, as Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry experienced in 2004, to losing a race for the Shoreline, Wash., School District Board. (That was Democrat Patty Murray in 1983.)

Still, Morris said, “comebacks are the exception, not the rule, in American politics.”

It’s said that what doesn’t kill you builds character. So a successful politician’s prior losses no doubt contribute to his mindset as he attempts to rebuild his political career. But how many politicians actually learn from their mistakes and apply that wisdom to future races, for better and worse, as Nixon did?

The answer may lie with the politicians themselves, and the circumstances of their defeats.

“It depends on the severity of the fall,” said Morris, who also wrote a biography of Bill and Hillary Clinton. “It’s a lot longer, rougher road [to a comeback] if you’ve lost for president than it is if you’re knocked off running for the state Assembly or the city council or even the House or the Senate.”

Steven Schmidt, an Internet publisher and adviser to two presidential candidates who had suffered political losses earlier in their careers, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) and former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), said their attitudes couldn’t have been more different.

By the time Dukakis was the Democratic nominee in 1988, he was in his third term as governor, having been elected in 1974, losing a re-election bid four years later, and then coming back and winning the post again in 1982 and 1986. Dukakis had a reputation for rigidity, and Schmidt said that was painfully apparent during the 1988 campaign.

“Key learnings didn’t get into his databank,” Schmidt recalled. “He was much too methodical.”

When Schmidt worked for Brown in the 1992 Democratic primaries, the former California governor was making his third presidential run after undergoing several political transformations. Brown was 36 when he was elected Golden State governor in 1974; he entered the 1976 presidential primaries late but made a splash. He was re-elected in 1978 and ran for president again in 1980, this time finishing a dismal third.

At the end of his second term in Sacramento, Brown lost a run for a vacant Senate seat. Then in the late 1980s, he served as chairman of the California Democratic Party, raising prodigious amounts of money.

But by the time 1992 rolled around, Brown was running a true insurgent’s campaign for president, eschewing big money and making an early and vocal call for political reform. Although Brown ultimately was defeated by Clinton, his mantra on political reform was adopted to good effect by Ross Perot in the general election and Republican Congressional candidates in 1994. In some ways, the issues Brown raised in ’92 are still very salient today.

“He wouldn’t have run that campaign without the other campaigns he ran,” Schmidt said.

While political resurrections make a good story, Morris said, they are likely to become harder in the years ahead, as a candidate’s mistakes will be enshrined and echoed on the Internet.

“Comebacks,” he said, “ain’t what they used to be.”

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