Sunday, June 18, 2006

In Politics, Winning Isn't Everything. Running Is.

The New York Times
In Politics, Winning Isn't Everything. Running Is.


TOM TANCREDO is not well known outside of Congress, a few C-Span junkies and the slab of Colorado he represents. But the four-term Republican representative says he might run for president anyway. Could he win? "No way," Mr. Tancredo says, neatly distilling the prevailing wisdom on his chances.

But that's beside the point. As a general rule, the only thing a politician loves more than getting attention is getting free attention — if that free attention isn't too embarrassing. And saying you might run is a surefire way to get free attention. This partly explains why Mr. Tancredo sounds so giddy on the phone, as if he's just stumbled onto a broken slot machine.

"I could not be happier," says Mr. Tancredo, a conservative immigration hawk who wants to publicize the issue, preferably with himself as a spokesman.

So far so good. Reporters have been approaching him in droves in recent months, he says, as have cable-television bookers, talk-radio producers and people seeking guest speakers. Some of this flows from Mr. Tancredo's role in the immigration debate, now front and center. But, he readily admits, his presidential gambit has helped a lot, too.

Indeed, the mantle of "possible presidential candidate" holds much more allure than "congressman" or "little-known congressman."

"Potential something is far better than past anything if you are interested in engagement in policy or politics," says Tom Daschle, the "past" Democratic leader of the Senate who was voted out of office by South Dakota voters in 2004.

Now he is a "potential" presidential candidate, which sounds a lot better.

The 2008 field could be immensely crowded, with possibly a dozen or more candidates running from each party. No doubt many hopefuls think they can prevail. But win or (more likely) lose, the experience can be a career boon, resulting in better speaking fees, book deals, job offers or political advancement.

The Rev. Al Sharpton says he never expected to win in 2004, but believes he is now viewed as a more serious figure because he ran. "I get invitations to speak at colleges from the political science departments and law schools," Mr. Sharpton says. "Before, I would only get invited by the black student union." He also has his own nationally syndicated radio and TV shows. Mr. Sharpton hasn't ruled out 2008 either, he says.

Neither has Al Gore, at least totally — or enough to get the political wise-guy set to stop speculating that he might run. This has earned Mr. Gore a great deal of recognition recently, a useful thing when you have a movie to promote.

Recent days have also seen a similar boomlet for Mayor Bloomberg, who replied "absolutely not" when asked last weekend if he was running for president before deviously adding, "and anybody who's running will say exactly that." The predictable "Bloomberg for President (?)" stories followed, buoying his efforts to become a national spokesman on issues like gun violence and public health.

The former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he'll decide in a year or so whether he's running in 2008, but in the meantime he's happy to keep people guessing.

"If you're interested in defining the 'idea context' and the political context for the next generation, which I am, the most effective way is to be seen as potentially available," Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Post last week.

Beyond a short-term publicity hit, people who run are marked for life by the experience, usually for the better. "Unless something really weird or scandalous happens to you, most people will come out of a presidential campaign with their stature enhanced," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who managed former Representative Richard Gephardt's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988.

Note the caveat — "unless something weird or scandalous happens to you."

"The experience can be career-shortening if you do something really foolish," says former Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president in 1992. As an example, Mr. Kerrey cites "if you tell a lesbian joke or something." (Mr. Kerrey was overheard telling one to fellow candidate Bill Clinton in 1991.)

Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, doomed himself to the "do something foolish" category when he was forced to end his 1988 presidential campaign after appropriating the words of a British politician without crediting him. But Mr. Biden says he plans to run in 2008.

"I know I'm supposed to be coy, but I'm running," he says. Mr. Biden says he has recovered from 1988 thanks to the visible role he has played in the Senate as a member of the Judiciary Committee and as a ubiquitous spokesman on foreign affairs.

It's also inevitable that running for president again will call attention to how Mr. Biden's last campaign ended. The Senate is a big and heady stage, after all, but presidential campaigns are the ultimate platform, "the World Series of politics," Mr. Carrick says.

Except that only two baseball teams play in the World Series. In politics, anyone with a certain stature can run for president. A Tom Tancredo can sit on the same stage as a John McCain.

Mr. Tancredo even won a presidential straw poll in Michigan last weekend. A few days later, his fellow Republican House member Roy Blunt asked if he could be his driver. He was joking, presumably.