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Losing an election prepares future winners

May 8, 2017

Right after New Year’s Day I attempted to argue that it was too early to be asking voters to start thinking about who they wanted to support and vote for in next year’s elections.

After all, we are still recovering from last year’s endless campaign. But it’s clear I was howling into an unstoppable hurricane. Not only do I get daily notifications that this candidate or that is running for the legislature in November, 2018, I already am detecting the first embryonic stirrings among Democrats, such as Elizabeth Warren, who are starting to test Presidential waters for 2020.

Now, I do want to say on the record that I am not running for anything in 2024, 2028, or like, ever.

But I do want to make an observation you might find interesting, something I’ve observed over decades of covering politics. The strongest candidates and the ones who do best at governing are usually those who, earlier in their careers, suffered a defeat.

Take U.S. Senator Gary Peters, for example. Fifteen years ago, he ran for Michigan Attorney General in a race that should have been a slam dunk. He was exceptionally qualified, it was an open seat, and the top of the Democratic ticket was clearly going to win.

However, Peters ran a dreadful campaign, and ended up losing by one of the closest margins in state history. But Peters learned from his mistakes. He bided his time, formed alliances, and six years later won a seat in Congress, then went on to the U.S. Senate.

Learning from losing has also been something many of our most successful presidents had in common. Not many voters know that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each ran for Congress early in their careers and lost. Barack Obama took on an incumbent congressman in a Democratic primary and got creamed.

Presidents who lost races for the U.S. Senate include Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush -- twice -- and some guy named Abraham Lincoln.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a losing vice-presidential candidate a dozen years before he won the top prize, and John F. Kennedy failed in an effort to win a vice-presidential nomination. Ronald Reagan twice failed to win the Republican presidential nomination before finally getting it.

Every one of those men learned from losing. Now, when you look at the field shaping up for Michigan’s next race for governor, this might indicate Bill Schuette may have an edge.

Michigan’s attorney general gave up a safe seat in Congress in 1990 to challenge U.S. Senator Carl Levin, who beat him in a landslide. Schuette then went on to rebuild his career.

But not everybody learns from losing.

Richard Nixon finally got elected President after losing earlier bids for the presidency and for governor, but never shook the bitterness and paranoia from those earlier losses. Hillary Rodham Clinton blew the Democratic nomination nine years ago.

But when she finally did get the prize, it seemed that she had done little to improve her ability to connect with average people.

Rick Snyder, on the other hand, never ran in any election until the one that elected him. Some think this state, and specifically Flint, might be better off if he’d had to cope with a bit of adversity first.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.