As a fateful presidential race gradually takes shape, political junkies will feel both bemused and mystified by the persistence of marginal candidates who have no chance whatsoever of caucus or primary victories. In 2012, as in previous years, it ought to be obvious that some of these purported White House aspirants are actually running for profit, not for president.
This point came home to me during a startling 2007 conversation with a friend and colleague who hosts a successful radio talk show. He asked me, in confidence, what I thought about the idea of his declaring his candidacy for president of the United States. Without hesitation, I told him it sounded like a disastrous idea. He’d need to give up his well-established show once he became an official candidate and would never receive serious consideration by pundits and commentators, as he’d never run for office before. Moreover, he’d hate the process of begging friends and strangers for campaign cash, with no realistic prospect of victory against rivals with fatter wallets and bigger names.
My friend laughed and acknowledged that he’d never advance to the White House but said he believed the campaign process could boost his media career. After the publicity surrounding even the feeblest presidential non-juggernaut, he could command larger radio audiences, bigger book advances, higher speaking fees, and the generally enhanced notoriety that attaches to anyone who travels the country running for the world’s most powerful office.
As for the likelihood that journalists and opponents would scour his past to publicize some embarrassing scandal or shortcoming—another of my objections—he argued that even this humiliation would help publicize his name and enhance his reputation, particularly if they found something juicy to dominate a news cycle or two.
In the end, common sense, and a reluctant spouse, prevailed and my pal declined to make the race, though we both recognized, ruefully, that his lively mind and formidable rhetorical skills could have enlivened some of the preternaturally boring 2008 debates. Our conversation also persuaded me that under the right circumstances, a presidential campaign that made no sense politically might earn dollars and cents in career enhancements.
Consider, for example, the obnoxious career of the appalling Alan Keyes. In 1996, Keyes launched the first of three utterly quixotic campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination, following a brief tenure at the State Department (where his most conspicuous title made him assistant secretary of state for international organizations); a few jobs with think tanks (American Enterprise Institute and Citizens Against Government Waste); and two disastrous senatorial campaigns in Maryland (in 1992, he drew only 29 percent of the general-election vote as the Republican nominee).
With few financial resources and no organized campaign apparatus, he nonetheless made strong impressions in televised appearances thanks to his impassioned eloquence and novelty status as the only black candidate in the Republican field. Subsequent bids for the presidency made no practical headway—in 2008, he memorably compared his candidacy to an aborted fetus—but turned the invariably angry Keyes into an oddball celebrity. He hosted a short-lived radio show and even got a brief place on the MSNBC cable schedule, under the puzzling title Alan Keyes Is Making Sense. He now conducts ceaseless fundraising efforts to keep alive his multiple challenges to President Obama’s citizenship status.
In short, even Keyes’ laughable presidential campaigns, including conducting a hunger strike and getting himself arrested when excluded from one televised debate in 1996, helped him emerge from anonymity, after a previous spate of failures and false starts.
Ron Paul’s three campaigns—as a libertarian in 1988, and as a Republican in 2008 and 2012—have served a similar purpose. He’s drawn few votes, with his libertarian candidacy earning less than one-half of 1 percent of the general-election ballots, but the once-obscure Texas congressman has become a bestselling author and prominent media commentator. His cult-like following produced a lavishly funded if startlingly ineffective organization, raising $25 million that resulted in 0.63 percent of GOP delegates at the convention, while providing jobs for numerous members of his extended family.
Other perennial candidates—Dennis Kucinich, Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson—became famous for their energetic and colorful campaigns, building their media profiles and, in Kucinich’s case, winning a beautiful young wife, regardless of the invariably disappointing results in primaries and caucuses.
These for-profit presidential ventures differed profoundly from earlier candidates who became notorious for their frequent but hopeless White House drives. Harold Stassen ran for president eight times between 1948 and 1992, but in his first two races, and as a youthful, popular Minnesota governor, he had been considered a serious candidate. Later, he ran increasingly forlorn campaigns to keep his name before the public and to hold on to just a bit of the national spotlight. Today’s careerist-campaigners run not to preserve the public’s attention, but to win significant coverage for the first time; to seize rather than retain that coveted spotlight.
In the 2012 race, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum have already succeeded in this strategy. I know and respect both candidates as sincere, deeply committed patriots and conservative activists who care passionately about the issues they discuss in their interviews, sparsely attended campaign events, and, most important, televised debates. Though they and their supporters will tell you that they are running to advance their ideas, they must also acknowledge, at least in private rumination, that other GOP contenders fight for virtually identical positions and that the chief result of their hopeless candidacies will be career enhancement.
Cain lost a Georgia Senate primary in his only prior run for public office and hosts a nighttime radio show in Atlanta, but his presidential drive exposed a much wider audience to his folksy charm and persuasive oratory. After the election, he’ll almost certainly get a far more prominent media gig, perhaps joining Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee on Fox News, write a bestselling book, and win five-figure speaking engagements.
Santorum has wandered the political wilderness since a crushing reelection defeat in Pennsylvania in 2006, but his presidential bid, highlighted by a smart, polished, forceful performance in the New Hampshire CNN debate, has already rejuvenated his career, making him a far more plausible possibility for future high office (either appointive or elected), major think tank positions, or as an enhanced voice in conservative media.
There’s something about standing on stage at candidate forums, in front of high-tech TV sets and eagerly cheering crowds, side by side with front-running, big-time contenders who could actually win the White House, that inescapably enhances personal prestige, regardless of thin electoral support or nonexistent prospects of victory.
In the media-driven circus atmosphere of modern nomination campaigns, even candidates with pathetic primary showings, negligible delegate totals, lousy poll ratings, and modest political war chests can register positive results on the scoreboard of personal progress. Winning isn’t everything in politics, but it’s never beside the point, and some contemporary presidential candidates have learned how to transcend mundane matters like vote totals in discovering new ways of winning.
This column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST on June 17, 2011.