One of the more interesting phenomenon that has manifested itself this election is the rise of a large group of self-appointed political commentators and social media talking heads who seem to think history started June 16, 2015 – the day Donald Trump announced for President, or maybe a few months earlier when Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush threw their hats in the ring.
The reality is that while Trump’s campaign has been a realigning earthquake in American politics, and we embrace the creative destruction Trump has wrought on the Republican establishment, what has happened in the past in Republican politics has a lot more influence on Ted Cruz’s political future than anything Donald Trump or his supporters said since Cruz spoke to the Republican National Convention without endorsing Trump.
Here’s a quick review of the modern era history of post-primary relations between Republican candidates for President – and it is not encouraging for Ted Cruz if he ever plans to run for and win the White House.
In 1964 there was a Stop Goldwater movement every bit as vicious and prolonged as the #NeverTrump movement.
Candidates seemed to pop out of the woodwork to try to prevent Goldwater from winning the Republican nomination for President; Michigan Governor George Romney, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and most prominently, New York’s liberal Republican Governor, Nelson Rockefeller.
Despite their efforts Barry Goldwater arrived at the Republican National Convention with a clear majority and the nomination in hand.
However, that didn’t stop Rockefeller from continuing to attack Goldwater as an “extremist” and to do everything he could to undercut the launch of Goldwater’s campaign. Despite Governor Rockefeller’s behavior he was offered an opportunity to address the Convention, and he used that opportunity not to smooth over the deep divisions in the GOP that he had helped create, but to taunt Goldwater’s grassroots supporters and deliver one last public attack on his Party’s nominee.
Goldwater was defeated in spectacular fashion, in large measure by a Democratic campaign that simply recycled the attack lines Romney, Lodge and Rockefeller had leveled against him in the primaries and at the Republican National Convention.
But if Goldwater went down in defeat, Rockefeller left the field completely irrelevant to the future of the Republican Party that was being redefined by the grassroots conservatives that Rockefeller has so injudiciously taunted at the Cow Palace in 1964.
And the Republican figure who left San Francisco with the brightest prospects?
None other than Richard Nixon whose political career was thought to be over in the wake of his loss to Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and his 1962 loss to Democrat Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election, but who redeemed himself with a stirring speech calling for the Party to unite behind its nominee – Barry Goldwater.
Nixon campaigned hard for Goldwater and legend has it that in the aftermath of his epic defeat Senator Goldwater met with the Senate Republican Conference, and, with Nixon in the front row, expressed deep gratitude and ended his remarks by saying, “Dick, if there’s ever anything I can do…”
Four years later Goldwater helped tamp down a conservative rebellion coalescing around newly elected California Governor Ronald Reagan’s reservations about Nixon and sent a man whose career was deemed dead out from the Republican National Convention and on to the White House.
And Nelson Rockefeller was, again, an also ran for the Republican nomination for President.
While Rockefeller eschewed active participation in Nixon’s campaign, Reagan worked for his fellow Californian and gained important national exposure in the process.
Likewise, when Reagan was defeated in 1976 in a close and bitterly contested convention he appeared on the stage with Ford and gave brief remarks calling for GOP unity and telling the audience “There is no substitute for victory.”
Reagan also campaigned for Ford, and if his endorsement was not crystal clear at the Convention it most certainly was by the end of the campaign.
When a fractured Republican Party arrived in Detroit for the 1980 Convention Reagan had the votes for a first ballot victory, however, when the last remnants of the Rockefeller wing of the Party threatened to revolt and form a #NeverReagan movement, relations between Reagan and Ford were such that Reagan could give serious consideration to bringing Ford onto the ticket – a plan destined to fail, but indicative of the commitment of both to defeat Jimmy Carter and end his disastrous presidency.
In 1980 Ford endorsed Reagan and cut a strong endorsement commercial for the Reagan – Bush ticket that you can watch through the link; key line “1976 is behind us.”
Fast forward to 2000 and the hard fought contest between John McCain and George W. Bush. After winning New Hampshire, McCain was vaporized in a deluge of negative ads in South Carolina and the campaign became deeply personal after that.
McCain attacked anyone whom he thought was supporting George W. Bush, especially social conservatives, NRA supporters and those on the Christian Right.
When John McCain, a legitimate American hero with a then ACU rating of 84, suspended his campaign and returned to the Senate he was excoriated as a RINO (Republican in name only) called “the White Rat” and ostracized by his fellow Republican Senators to the point that it is alleged no one would sit with him at the weekly Senate Republican Conference Luncheons.
McCain endorsed George W. Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention, saying generously:
I support him. I am grateful to him. And I am proud of him. He is a good man from a good family that has, in good times and bad, dedicated themselves to America. Many years ago, the governor's father served in the Pacific, with distinction, under the command of my grandfather. Now it is my turn to serve under the son of my grandfather's brave subordinate. I am proud to do so, for I know that by supporting George W Bush I serve my country well.
But many saw McCain’s speech as the words of a sore loser who spent an inordinate amount of his air time laying down a trail of breadcrumbs toward unfavorable comparisons between his distinguished military career as a POW in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s service in the Air Guard, and that it was as much about McCain and his agenda as it was about Bush.
McCain did only the most perfunctory campaigning for George W. Bush, but more importantly he spent the eight years of the George W. Bush administration being “the Maverick.”
He sponsored the McCain – Feingold campaign finance “reform” bill portions of which were later struck down by the Supreme Court. He opposed Bush from the Left on taxes and spending and a variety of domestic policy issues.
When McCain declared he was running for President his campaign went on a rollercoaster that saw him lead or drop to the cellar on a month-by-month basis, at one time his campaign was so low on cash he was flying commercial with just one staffer, but he somehow prevailed over Mitt Romney to claim the nomination.
But the White House was to elude him, in large measure because, even with the dynamic Sarah Palin on the ticket with him, conservatives could not get past “the Maverick” and sore loser who sowed so much havoc during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency.
In the creative disruption of the 2016 campaign many of the old rules of politics – and particularly political communications – are out the window. But history still has many lessons for the 16 candidates whom Donald Trump vanquished and who may still have presidential ambitions.
The first lesson is that party unity is vital to victory, and Republicans elect Presidents when they build new coalitions and fulfill their promises to them – as they did in 1980.
The second lesson is that perseverance is key to obtaining the nomination – Reagan ran three times, Dole, McCain and Romney twice. Young men like Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and (gulp) Marco Rubio have long careers before them and many more cycles to seek the presidency if that is their ambition.
But more important than those is this lesson: sore losers may persevere and get the nomination, but for some reason they never get to the White House.
Republican primary voters tend toward primogeniture and they may make a cause out of a closely fought loss, as Nixon’s supporters did over his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy and Reagan’s conservative supporters did in 1976 after he was denied the GOP nomination, however, it appears that general election voters have a higher standard and they will never forgive or look at a sore loser as worthy of the highest office in the land.