By Richard S. Dunham
For Presidential campaign losers, the year after a failed White House bid often resembles a grade-B melodrama entitled From Here to Obscurity. After receiving intense media attention and sycophantic adulation, Presidential and Vice-Presidential losers frequently vanish from the political scene. There are exceptions -- how many more products can 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole pitch on TV? But did you ever hear another word from Michael Dukakis, John Anderson, or George Romney after they lost in their bids for the Presidency? Remember Harold Stassen? May he rest in peace.
For the most part, the 2000 campaign was no different. Ex-Vice-President Al Gore is in semi-seclusion, writing a book and lecturing to journalism students. Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley has returned to retirement, pledging never to seek public office again. Gary Bauer, once a rising star of the Religious Right, is trying to rebuild his career as a Christian Conservative powerbroker.
Ex-Red Cross boss Elizabeth Dole has returned to her life as the other half of Bob Dole Inc. And former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, who once campaigned as Lamar!, now is simply Lamar? This would-be leader of the free world has become an invisible man in the brave new world of Republican-dominated Washington. Still, not every loser in Campaign 2000 has fallen off the face of the earth. Two also-rans returned to the U.S. Senate as national figures with enhanced influence.
STAND AND DELIVER.
The big winner among the losers: Arizona Senator John McCain. He hasn't slowed a step since his Straight Talk Express was derailed by the $100 million Bush juggernaut. Acting like a conquering hero rather than a vanquished warrior, the maverick Republican has aggressively pushed an ambitious legislative agenda, ranging from campaign-finance reform to airline passengers' rights.
His modus operandi: Working with Democrats to craft bipartisan proposals that confound the GOP leadership and challenge his own party's President. McCain hasn't won many friends on his side of the aisle, but he has done something Beltway skeptics had thought impossible: He's on the verge of winning congressional approval of the first major piece of campaign-finance legislation since the post-Watergate days. While Bush's education-reform plan and tax cut work their way through the system, McCain is already delivering on his campaign promises.
What's more, a Mar. 9-11 Gallup Poll found McCain the most revered public figure in America after Secretary of State Colin Powell. And when matched head-to-head with Bush, McCain comes out a big winner. With a favorable rating of 61% -- and an unfavorable number of just 15% -- McCain topped President Bush on the public applause-o-meter. A Mar. 27-28 Reuters/Zogby poll found that 49% of Americans trust McCain more than Bush, while just 26% side with the President.
With ratings like that, some pundits are speculating that McCain could mount an independent, "Bull Moose" candidacy against Bush in 2004, following the historical lead of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt. Bush, meanwhile, is downplaying the personal rivalry between them. "It's a game in Washington to try to create tension between John McCain and me," Bush said at a Mar. 29 press conference. "And I'm not going to let it happen.... I can't control the stories that seem to be popping up all the time -- faceless aides that are out there trying to stir the pot. I can just give you my perspective. I like him. He's a good man. We have some differences."
While McCain basks in the limelight, his Democratic colleague Joe Lieberman is trying to rebuild his image as a centrist after a campaign in which he strayed from his long-cultivated image as a moderate to play loyal second banana to Gore's fiery populist. He has worked with President Bush on education reform and a plan to allow religious groups to provide social services. And he's pushing a capital-gains tax cut -- something he has advocated for years but repudiated during the 2000 campaign.
Republican consultant Charlie Black says Lieberman has been able to restore his reputation because he is "highly respected and liked across party lines." Senate colleagues are willing to cut the Connecticut Democrat some slack. Says Black: "When you run for Vice-President, you've got to be loyal to what the Presidential nominee is for."
Lieberman says he hasn't decided whether to seek the top job in 2004, but he is sounding like a man who has caught the Presidential bug. "I loved every minute of it," Lieberman said on Mar. 27, "until the end, of course." At this point, he won't make plans until he hears from his friend Al. Would he ever run against Gore? "Let's say it would be awkward for me," responds Lieberman.
Another loser with a consolation prize is magazine publisher Steve Forbes. Though he finished a poor third, Forbes emerged from the campaign as a leading spokesman for economic conservatives. He has gone back to running his family's magazine, and he's dabbling in politics, serving as an adviser to the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign of Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, a Forbes protégé.
While most conservatives have fallen in lockstep behind the Bush agenda, Forbes is trying to nudge the President further to the right. He calls the $1.6 trillion tax cut "too small" and argues "it should be made more muscular" by adding a capital-gains tax cut and other investment incentives. "If you have a bad case of the flu that's turning into pneumonia, you need more than baby aspirin," he told BusinessWeek Online.
After savaging the new President and his father on the campaign trail, Forbes isn't going to get an Administration job -- or an invitation to the White House Christmas party. But, as one Bush adviser acknowledges, "Forbes still has a following, particularly among economic conservatives." As long as the publisher doesn't attack the President personally, Administration officials say Forbes serves a useful purpose by keeping political pressure on Congress not to slash the size of the tax cut.
It's too early to predict the political futures of McCain, Lieberman, and Forbes. But they seem to be showing that a few campaign losers can escape the curse of Harold Stassen.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht