Nominated by Barack Obama to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry is one of a cavalcade of losing Democratic presidential nominees whose political careers have seen a second life. In 2004, had less than 60,000 votes in Ohio changed hands, Kerry would have been the first person to defeat a wartime President in U.S. history. Instead, Kerry returned to the work in the U.S. Senate, winning reelection in 2008 and securing the gavel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry is not the first losing Democratic presidential nominee to be nominated as Secretary of State. William Jennings Bryan, who was the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in three elections, became Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. There is an eerie similitude between Bryan and Kerry. In 2007, Kerry, seen by many as the epitome of the old guard Democratic establishment, bucked the Democratic establishment candidate, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, in favor of the insurgent, U.S. Senator Barack Obama. Similarly, Bryan endorsed Wilson’s bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 1912 over the putative frontrunner, House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri. Bryan’s endorsement helped Wilson secure enough delegates to be nominated on the 46th ballot at the Democratic Convention.
Obama, like Wilson, had a meteoric rise to winning his party’s nomination. Wilson had just been elected to his first political office (Governor of New Jersey), only two years earlier. Obama had just been elected to his first statewide political office three years earlier. In both cases, their nominations were validated by the endorsements of Democratic luminaries, including Bryan in 1912 and Kerry in 2007. Both men were rewarded by being nominated for Secretary of State.
Bryan was not the first losing Democratic presidential nominee to become Secretary of State. Lewis Cass, who was the party’s nominee in 1848, became Secretary of State under President James Buchanan.
Ironically, both Bryan and Cass resigned their positions in protest of administration policy. Bryan came to believe that the Wilson administration’s harsh denunciation of Germany (after they sank the British Cruise liner RMS Lusitania) would lead to the U.S. entering WWl. Bryan was also a non-interventionist. Cass felt strongly that the Buchanan administration needed to take a harder line against Southern secessionists.
After losing a close election, Kerry returned to his work in the U.S. Senate. He won reelection four years later, carrying 350 of the Bay State’s 351 municipalities. Kerry was not the only losing Democratic nominee to return to the Senate. Hubert Humphrey, like Kerry, lost a close election, losing the popular vote in 1968 to Republican Richard M. Nixon by less than one percentage point. Humphrey did not have a Senate seat to fall back on, having relinquished his Senate seat to become Vice President in 1964. But in 1970, he announced a bid to return to the body and was elected handily. Two years later, Humphrey ran for the Democratic presidential nomination once again. While Humphrey secured support from traditional blue-collar Democratic constituencies, he failed to cultivate support with the proliferating anti-Vietnam wing of the Democratic Party. Though Humphrey denounced his past support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Democratic primary voters chose U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) over Humphrey. After this loss, Humphrey soldiered on in the U.S. Senate, winning reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1976.
George McGovern, seen as left of the American mainstream, was walloped in the 1972 General election by President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon won 49 states, pocketing a formidable 94 percent of the Republican vote, 66 percent of the Independent vote, and even 44 percent of the Democratic vote. After that resounding defeat, McGovern, like Kerry, had a U.S. Senate seat to fall back on. Again, like Kerry, McGovern sought reelection when the seat came up again. However, McGovern did not hail from a safely Democratic state and struggled to keep his Senate seat in conservative South Dakota.
McGovern was defeated, however, in his bid for another term by Lieutenant Governor James Abnor in 1980. Undeterred, McGovern, like Humphrey, sought the Democratic Nomination for president again. After a solid third place finish in the 1984 Iowa Caucuses, McGovern failed to garner electoral traction, regressing from the race shortly thereafter. He actually flirted with another run in 1992, deciding to forego the race.
Like Humphrey and McGovern, Kerry also contemplated another presidential bid. In fact, he spent much of the 2006 mid-term election season barnstorming the nation for Democratic candidates. However, his image took a tumble when he made a controversial joke that offended many in the military. Kerry stated: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” Despite Kerry’s assertion that the joke was aimed solely at the handling of the Iraq War by President George W. Bush, the damage was done. Kerry subsequently announced that he would not pursue the presidency.
In contrast to Kerry who remained loyal to the Democratic Party and to the next Democratic President, Barack Obama, the party’s nominees in 1924 and 1928, John W. Davis and Al Smith both became critics of future Democratic Presidents.
John W. Davis, a conservative Democrat who secured the Democratic nomination for his party in 1924 on a record 103rd ballot, only to lose in the General election to President Calvin Coolidge, returned to the legal profession. Davis became active in the American Liberty League, which opposed the domestic program of Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ironically, Davis was the lawyer who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Roosevelt’s Democratic successor, Harry S. Truman, had unconstitutionally seized the steel mills during the Korean Conflict.
Like Davis, Smith also became critical of Roosevelt. Both Democrats joined the American Liberty League. Smith even actively campaigned for Roosevelt’s Republican opponents in 1936 and again in 1940. Smith, who was to the right of Roosevelt, excoriated Roosevelt for pitting “class against class.” Smith became persona non grata in many Democratic circles, and some members of the Democratic high command branded his actions “treason.”
In 2004, it was John Kerry who made the unorthodox decision of asking a State Senator from Illinois who had just captured the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. This was the convention where Kerry was nominated for president. This obscure figure was Barack Obama. He delivered an electrifying oration, making him a national figure overnight, and putting him on a path to be the party’s presidential nominee four years later. After a full term in office, Obama is finally paying Kerry back for launching him into political stardom.
Like Humphrey and McGovern, Kerry returned to the U.S. Senate and became a loyal foot soldier for his party’s agenda. Like Cass and Bryan, Kerry’s fidelity to his party was rewarded by being nominated to the coveted Cabinet position of Secretary of State. Unlike Democrats Davis and Smith, who expressed open hostility toward their Party’s Democratic President, Kerry became a steadfast supporter of the next Democratic President and is now reaping his political reward for that act of loyalty.