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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

On Not Running For President

The big political news in Washington today was Mark Warner’s surprise announcement that he was not running for president in 2008, citing concerns about the impact of a campaign on his family. Naturally, hundreds of political operatives and would-be pundits got on the phone with each other to see if anyone knew the “real reason” for Warner’s decision. But best I can tell at this point, we should all take Warner’s word for it that he and his wife had agreed on this fall as a failsafe point, and after taking a long look at what a presidential run–or for that matter, a victory–would do to their lives, took a pass. This happens pretty often, actually. Sure, there are always some Big Dogs in Washington (e.g., Wilbur Mills, John Connally, Phil Gramm, Orrin Hatch) who delude themselves into thinking they are presidential timber, until they crash and burn on the campaign trail. But almost every cycle, there are potentially strong candidates who just don’t run. Until (and for that matter, after) he finally ran in 1980, Ted Kennedy was perenially regarded as a proto-candidate. Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn famously didn’t run in 1988 and 1992. Bob Kerrey surprised a lot of people when he announced he wouldn’t run in 2000. And sometimes candidates go back and forth. Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan both foreswore a run in 1968, before jumping in late. And in 1992, Ross Perot set a new standard for irresolution by running full-tilt for president, withdrawing, and then re-entering the race. The most renowned statement of non-candidacy was, of course, William Tecumsah Sherman’s terse announcement prior to the 1884 presidential election that “if drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” Indeed, my former boss Sam Nunn often avoided a definitive statement of non-candidacy by remarking: “As a Georgian, I would never make a Sherman Statement.”But my personal favorite in this genre was Fritz Mondale’s comment, after abandoning a 1972 run, that he “didn’t want to spend the next year living in Holiday Inns” (this was back in the day, before the willingness to become a quasi-resident of Iowa, and consume vast quantities of that state’s fine pork products, became the threshold issue for potential candidates). Reminded of this disclaimer when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination in1976, Mondale allowed as how the Holiday Inn chain had made a lot of improvements in the intervening four years. Warner’s announcement of non-candidacy will not be the last of this cycle, but no one really knows who may drop out or drop in exactly when. I know very smart people who are convinced Hillary Clinton won’t run, and/or that Al Gore will, against all the current evidence. Among Republicans, you hear that Rudy Guiliani is definitely in, or definitely out. The only sure drop-out among the frequently named is George Allen, whether or not he survives his rolling disaster of a Senate re-election campaign. But I think it’s both wise and decent when a potential candidate drops out to give him or her the benefit of the doubt and accept that mere personal reasons are always sufficient to justify a statement of non-candidacy. For all the allure of the power and influence associated with becoming the Leader of the Free World, getting there is a brutal business indeed, and as President Al Gore and President John Kerry can tell you, in our system there ain’t no consolation prizes for valiant near-misses.

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