Where Is Alton B. Parker Now That We Need Him?


March 03, 1991|By ROSS K. BAKER

Even though there are no blips on the Democratic presidential radar, even though the Iowa political landscape is as barren as that of Neptune, even though New Hampshiremen are becoming fretful over the lack of quadrennial attention, we all assume that the party out of power will come up with a candidate to challenge President Bush.

We make this assumption because American political parties have never failed to come up with a candidate, even when their chances ranged from bleak to nil. The Democrats came up with New York Gov. Horatio Seymour to challenge the phenomenally popular Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. The Republicans got Kansas Gov. Alf Landon to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 at the very pinnacle of his popularity and success. And at the most inauspicious period in the life of any American political party, the Democrats in 1904 were able to persuade an obscure New York state appeals court judge named Alton B. Parker to run against Theodore Roosevelt, who was not only the successor to the martyred William McKinley but the hero of America's magnificent little war with Spain in 1898. But at the end of this century, with the status of American political parties so greatly changed, who is prepared to step forward to take such a bruising?

What we face in 1992 is the possibility that there will be no Democratic candidate for president. The Constitution does not require an opposition candidate, and there is no legal way that anyone can be compelled to run. Unless the war in the Persian Gulf produces a hero with political aspirations and Democratic leanings, we may well have the first presidential election that goes to the incumbent by default.

When political parties were robust institutions, powerful state party leaders or senior statesmen would meet in smoke-filled rooms and pay a visit on some distinguished individual who would agree, with becoming reluctance -- if you believe the cosmeticized contemporary accounts -- to stand for the party's nomination.

Who would be part of such a Democratic delegation today and what public figure they would approach is more the stuff of fantasy than of solid political commentary.

What would be the reaction if former President Carter, party Chairman Ron Brown, senior statesman Clark Clifford and Speaker Tom Foley paid a visit on Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to anoint him as the party's nominee for 1992? It would be the kiss of death for Mr. Nunn, who would immediately be dismissed as the darling of a self-anointed party elite. He would not have passed through the political meat grinder of the primary process, nor would he have signed the dance cards of many of the interest groups that constitute the party's activist base. Even Mr. Nunn's vote against authorizing the use of force against Iraq would not be enough to protect him from the party's peace and freedom faction, which would regard his support of military budgets as an incapacitating flaw.

But the more important question is: What would Mr. Nunn or anyone else get out of the experience of being on the losing end of a presidential contest?

The days are gone when Grover Cleveland could come back after a hiatus of four years to win a second term, or when William Jennings Bryan could run three times as the Democratic nominee. Today's negative political campaigns do not simply produce one winner and one loser. They give us a victor who is apotheosized and exalted and a loser who is humiliated and discredited.

Can anyone imagine Mr. Carter winning another term? Can anyone conceive of a three-time unsuccessful nominee of either party? There is no way to emerge from a modern negative campaign except as sullied and degraded. When Roger Ailes is done with you, your own mother would turn you in.

People run for lesser offices as long-shot candidates in hope that even in a losing effort they will gain the name recognition that will enable them to win the second time around, perhaps even for a more lofty post. But with the presidency, you don't get a second shot and you can't trade up.

The honor and deference accorded to Adlai Stevenson, who was twice beaten by former President Eisenhower (in 1952 and 1956), was such that in 1960 he threatened to pull off a last-minute coup against the all-but-certain nomination of former President Kennedy. Will Michael Dukakis even show his face at the 1992 Democratic Convention?

The reason the convention may end without a candidate is that there is no incentive for anyone to assume the risk of public humiliation, abuse, disgrace and ultimate banishment to the attic of American politics. There are no Alton B. Parkers out there who will willingly suffer defeat and then go gently into dignified retirement.

Baron Montesquieu, reflecting on the grimness of war, remarked that a rational army would run away. Considering the carnage of the last few presidential campaigns, the people being mentioned as possible Democratic hopefuls for 1992 ought to be practicing their wind-sprints.

Ross Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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