The Pain That Is Politics


TAMPA, Fla. — Politics is about pain. Not the pain you feel when you watch it. The pain felt by the candidates.

They brush it off, laugh it off, shrug it off. But it kills them a little inside.

Presidential candidates are, appearances to the contrary, human. If you prick them, they do bleed.

And if they lose, some never recover.

Keep that in mind as you listen to the brave and wonderful words that will be spoken from podium at the Republican National Convention this week. Loss will not be mentioned here. Not Republican loss anyway.

But politics is so cruel that even winners can lose.

As the delegates arrive, it is a good time to consider who will not be here.

George W. Bush will not be here.

“I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in,” Bush said in an interview earlier this year.

These are not the words of a man who has felt no pain. Even though he lost only one election in his life — for a House seat when he was 32 — and twice was elected to the governorship of Texas and the presidency of the United States, those years are but a swamp to him.

He is not coming to Tampa and most likely will not be missed. Or even necessarily mentioned. Mitt Romney does not mention Bush in his stump speeches. And during the primaries, the hosannas bestowed by the Republican candidates tended to begin with Abraham Lincoln and end with Ronald Reagan.

George H.W. Bush? He’s not coming to Tampa, either. It’s as if he and his son have been Photoshopped out Republican history.

And these guys were winners! Sure, George H.W. lost re-election to Bill Clinton, but Clinton was a political wonder. Clinton left office after having had his sexual peccadillos made public, after having admitted lying to his family, friends, Cabinet, Congress, federal investigators and the American people, and after having been impeached.

And he left office with the highest approval rating — 68 percent — of any departing president since Harry Truman.

Clinton will be at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week. He will place Barack Obama’s name in nomination and will give a primetime speech virtually guaranteed to draw a huge audience.

Maybe politics was a swamp to Clinton, too, but it was a swamp he liked, a swamp he understood, a swamp where the ooze was like a comfort blanket.

This is important to the current race for president. The last Democratic administration before Obama’s was Clinton’s. Clinton reigned over a period of rising employment, a rising stock market and prosperity so great it produced a government surplus.

The last Republican administration was George W. Bush’s. It is not remembered for happy times. Russ Douhat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote a few weeks ago that voters are being asked to roll the dice and hand “the White House back to the Republican Party just four years after the Bush administration failed (and then some) to deliver on its promises.”

“Romney isn’t giving voters any reason to think that he won’t just deliver the same disappointing results,” Douhat wrote and a “Republican candidate who won’t define himself is a candidate who’s easily defined as just another George W. Bush.”

Ouch.

So even though George W. Bush twice won the presidency (go argue with the Supreme Court about his first victory), he is seen today, Douhat argues, as a loser, a loser Mitt Romney dare not be associated with.

Which is why you are not going to see him in the convention hall this week.

At every convention, I play a little game. I look around for the man or woman in the worst seat in the hall — usually a lonely seat so far from the stage that the speeches are barely rumors.

One year the man in that seat was George McGovern. McGovern was the Democratic nominee in 1972 and got crushed by Richard Nixon (whose campaign nonetheless felt it necessary to break into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to defeat him).

In 1976, McGovern was not invited to the Democratic convention, nor in 1980. I don’t know about 1984, but in 1988, he came. That year, there was a dramatic moment in the Omni convention hall in Atlanta after Michael Dukakis was nominated.

Dukakis invited all the big-shots in the party down to the podium to share the stage with him. One by one, they come down until nearly a hundred of them were crowding the stage and waving to the cheering audience.

I went over to a nearly empty patch of the balcony, where George McGovern sat alone.

“Those sons of bitches,” McGovern said to me. “There’s not one policy I had back then that they don’t have now. But now they don’t want to know I exist.”

Pain. They feel the pain.

Twelve years after McGovern was nominated, the party nominated Walter Mondale, who ended up getting even fewer electoral votes than McGovern did.

After his defeat, Mondale called McGovern and asked him when the pain stopped, when you woke up in the morning and did not feel like throwing up.

“I’ll tell you when I get there,” McGovern told him.

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