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Elections

Why Failed National Political Candidates Should Go Home

California Governor Jerry Brown at a press conference in 2014. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

Sarah Palin kicked up some headlines with a Sunday interview where she told Mark Levin, about running for vice president in 2008, that “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” If you actually watched the interview, Governor Palin was talking in the past tense — about whether she was glad she ran — not proposing a future return to national politics, which seems out of the cards for her these days. But it still got me thinking about the path taken by national candidates — presidential and vice presidential — and how political parties benefit when those candidates return home to their states. That’s something Palin was unable or unwilling to do after resigning the governorship of Alaska in 2009, just a year removed from being the nation’s most popular governor.

One of the many failings of the 2016 presidential field was candidates who had ascended to the national level (like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee) and seemed to have decided that they could make a better living as national candidates, even non-viable ones taking up space on a crowded stage, than by doing the hard work of going back to the states they came from and rebuilding their political networks and political standing there. That’s one of the criticisms I had for John Kasich recently as well, for passing on a Senate run in Ohio this year.

By contrast, some unsuccessful national candidates returned to the garden. Marco Rubio took a lot of mockery for reversing his pledge to leave the Senate, but he ended up holding a seat that Republicans had worried about losing, and drew some 200,000 more votes than Donald Trump in November 2016 in the process. Ted Cruz and Scott Walker went back to their day jobs and now face hotly contested re-election fights in 2018. 2012 contenders Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are back in the fray, Romney likely cruising to a Senate seat in Utah (after bailing on Massachusetts in 2006), Pawlenty returning to run for his old job of governor of Minnesota. Others have taken this tack at a lower level: Ken Buck became a congressman after failing at a Senate run, and Mark Sanford returned to the House after burning down his national profile and career as an executive in a sex scandal while governor. Mike DeWine took a step down to become Ohio attorney general after losing his Senate seat, and is now running for governor.

On the Democratic side, a great example of having the presidential disease and getting over it is Jerry Brown. Brown had the hubris to launch a presidential campaign in 1976, at the age of 37, after barely a year in office as governor of California. He ended up a distant second to Jimmy Carter in a crowded field, and an also-ran behind Carter and Ted Kennedy in 1980. He lost a Senate race in 1982 after becoming increasingly unpopular as governor, and left state politics for a long time, running for president a third time in 1992 and ending up the last man standing against Bill Clinton.

But then, Brown went back to basics: He got elected Mayor of Oakland in 1999, about the least glamorous job in California politics, and served two well-regarded terms; that proved a springboard to run for California AG and eventually become a two-term governor of California again, winning the state in the teeth of nationwide Republican waves in 2010 and 2014. You may not think much of Brown’s policy ideas, but as a matter of pure political tactics, the onetime Governor Moonbeam rebuilt himself from a punchline into an asset for his party.

The extreme example, of course, is John Quincy Adams, who after a politically disastrous and mostly ineffective tenure as president, went back to the House of Representatives, where he had not only a long political second act, but also a greater impact on the nation (as an anti-slavery crusader, a stance that was not yet safe to take in national politics in the 1830s and 1840s) than he had as president.

There is, of course, much to be said for politicians going back to the plow, leaving public life for the private sector and making room for the next generation. But if you have the talent and commitment for public service, you can do more good for your principles by taking a step back down closer to the people.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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