Come Nov. 6, either President Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will gather those same ashes in his hands. The losing presidential candidate will have received the support of nearly half the nation’s voters and, still in the prime of life, will face the question: So, what do I do now?
Bryan was just 36, so his answer was to run for president, and lose, twice more. But running again seems an unlikely option for the 65-year-old Romney. The last losing presidential nominee to run again and win his party’s endorsement was Richard Nixon in 1968.
Nor does it seem probable that the 51-year-old Obama would follow the example of Grover Cleveland, the only president denied reelection who later ran again, winning his rematch with Benjamin Harrison in 1892. (That is, unless Obama faces similar circumstances: Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888 but lost in the Electoral College.)
Nor would Obama be likely to emulate John Quincy Adams or Andrew Johnson, the only presidents to hold elective office post-presidency. Adams was beseeched by his neighbors to represent them in Congress just two years after being turned out of the White House in 1828. Johnson failed to win election to Congress before the Tennessee legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate.
Should Obama lose, he, like almost every ex-president since FDR, would probably establish his presidential library, along with a foundation, through which he can remain engaged in world affairs. Like former vice president Al Gore, he could win the Nobel Prize — but then, he already has, hasn’t he?
There is no similar template for Romney. He would struggle, like others who have lost recent presidential elections, to establish himself as an elder statesman of his party. No losing candidate has been recognized as the titular head of a party since Adlai Stevenson performed that function for the Democrats in the 1950s.
As was already evident at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, it is the younger statesmen such as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio who are likely to be the next spokesmen for the GOP.
A high Cabinet appointment in a future administration was once almost the due of a party’s unsuccessful candidate, but the last losing presidential nominee to be honored with such a post was Charles Evans Hughes, who served as secretary of state in the Harding and Coolidge administrations before returning to the Supreme Court in 1930 as chief justice. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, appears to be trying to renew this tradition, however; he seems to be campaigning to be Obama’s next secretary of state, a job currently occupied by another former presidential candidate.
Many losing presidential nominees just go back to their old jobs — often, like Kerry and John McCain, in Congress. But Romney has been out of elective office for almost six years and, possessing a considerable fortune, seems equally unlikely to return to the world of business. With 18 grandchildren, it seems likely that Romney’s focus would be more on his family and faith than the future of the GOP.