This is number five in my Biggest Losers series, profiling the most epic defeats in the history of the Presidency, and the men whose burden it was to suffer them. For previous entries, see Greeley (1872) get skewered, McGovern (1972) get buried, Parker (1904) get clowned and Landon (1936) go under.

Some of the stories of the Biggest Losers are sadder than others–not necessarily because the loss was so huge, numerically or politically, but because those who are defeated for the Presidency probably either start their campaigns or even finish them with a not-unreasonable judgment that victory is at least possible. This is certainly true of Robert Joseph “Bob” Dole, the venerable old Senator from Kansas who set out to defeat incumbent President Bill Clinton in 1996. A little more than a year before the election, Clinton seemed vulnerable. Battered by the failure of his health care initiative, troubles in Somalia, Oklahoma City and Bosnia, and a feverish pursuit of scandal by his conservative political enemies, 1995 was not a good year for Clinton, especially after the epic defeat the Democrats suffered in the 1994 midterms that brought Republican blowtorch Newt Gingrich into the office of Speaker of the House. Republicans were still a little shell-shocked by Clinton’s very artful win in the 1992 election over Reagan’s hand-picked heir George Bush. They were really hoping to put him away in ’96 and relegate Clinton’s election to a historical aberration, like Carter’s in 1976.

Dole was well-positioned to be the standard bearer in 1996. Excluding his Democratic colleague Teddy Kennedy, Dole was probably the last great dealmaker of the U.S. Senate, a conservative but centrist and pragmatic “doer” who could reach across the aisle and get meaningful legislation passed. Dole had been in the Senate since his first election in 1968, and served in the U.S. House before that. He was the last World War II veteran to be nominated by a major party. In April 1945 in Italy, right before the end of the war, a German machine-gunner raked Dole’s body with bullets. The catastrophic wound made guacamole of his right arm. Dole’s long road to recovery imbued him both with an iron determination and a sympathy for those in need. In politics he was honest, forthright, and quite effective. He became Senate Majority Leader in 1985 and held that post several more times in the next 9 years.

This campaign biography film from the 1996 Republican Convention stresses Dole’s experience as a war hero and his long process of recovery.

As hopeful as things looked for the Republicans in the fall of 1995, everything soon went down the toilet–and, for the most part, it was fellow Republicans whose hands were on the flusher. Exhibit A was the ridiculous government shutdown that shuttered the federal government beginning in November 1995 when Clinton refused to sign Republican-passed budgets that gutted various federal programs. Gingrich, the nominal leader of the GOP, rolled the dice that the public would blame Clinton. They didn’t. Not only did Clinton emerge from the crisis emboldened and Gingrich very unpopular, but stories circulated in the press that the whole thing was more personal than political, the result (it was said) of Gingrich being mad at having to board Air Force One through a rear door on a foreign trip. This was most likely an exaggeration, but when primary season started in early 1996, Dole and all Republicans suddenly faced a headwind.

Though the Republican “establishment” generally felt comfortable with Dole, his road to the nomination was rockier than expected. A few also-rans like Phil Gramm and Lamar Alexander occasionally stole the limelight during primary season, and billionaire Steve Forbes, who managed to win two primaries, was a constant gadfly. But Dole’s biggest problem was conservative columnist Pat Buchanan, who had shaken up the 1992 race by attacking the first President Bush from the right. Buchanan unexpectedly won the New Hampshire primary. With Forbes carpet-bombing the airwaves with negative ads, Dole was forced to contest the nomination more than his campaign expected. Buchanan and the others eventually fizzled, but it was the establishment money guys, fearing that only a centrist Republican could beat Clinton, who swung the tiller decisively in Dole’s direction. He locked up the nomination and resigned his Senate seat to run for President full-time, but by the time of the San Diego convention in August Dole was tired, overexposed and lower on funds than he would have liked.

With little ammunition to use against Bill Clinton, the Dole campaign was basically left with the same old tired “tax n’ spend liberal” epithets the Republicans had been using for years–such as this Dole campaign commercial.

Clinton, for his part, floated calmly above the fray. In August 1996 he signed into law a major welfare reform package originally championed by Republicans, including Dole, and proclaimed “the end of welfare as we know it.” This had the effect of stealing most of the GOP’s thunder, which was directed at painting Clinton as a shameless pandering liberal. Aided by his then aide Dick Morris–now something of a joke, but evidently a sage back in 1996–Clinton used a political tactic called “triangulating,” setting himself up as a centrist bridge between conservative Republican and liberal Democratic positions. Clinton thus insulated himself from attacks that he was too liberal, and because Dole was a moderate to begin with, the distance between Dole and Clinton’s philosophies was even shorter. Clinton ran a comfortable incumbent’s “why change horses in mid-stream?” strategy that had been used as long ago as Abraham Lincoln in 1864. By late summer, the scale of Clinton’s inevitable victory began to crystallize in polling results.

On the campaign trail Dole couldn’t catch a break. At 73, already the oldest Presidential candidate ever nominated, he stumbled about and made gaffes that made him look like everybody’s doddering old uncle, at one point referring to the “Brooklyn Dodgers” (the Dodgers left Brooklyn in the 1950s). His habit of talking about himself in the third person–“Bob Dole says this” and “Bob Dole stands for that”–was also a little odd. At two Presidential debates with Clinton, Dole was so stilted and wooden that he looked like a wind-up toy, where Clinton presented the image of youth, confidence and amiability. Third party candidate Ross Perot, who couldn’t quite recapture his momentum from 1992, wasn’t invited to the debates. As he looked to pull support from the two candidates about equally, neither Clinton nor Dole worried much about him; sauce for the goose and all that.

Here is one of the debates of the 1996 election. Clinton’s poise and easy charm are in marked contrast to Dole’s stiff, formal style.

The results of the election, on November 5, 1996, could not have been less surprising. Clinton KO’d the former Senator from Kansas with over 8 million more popular votes and an electoral vote avalanche of 379 to 159. Dole carried much of traditionally “red” America, but the big prizes such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan all went to Slick Willie. A rogues’ gallery of comical third party jokers, from Libertarian Harry Browne to consumer advocate Ralph Nader (Green Party), chewed on crumbs of less than one percent of the vote; even Perot, who eked out 8%, didn’t score a single electoral vote. Clinton won big, and he did it basically on auto-pilot. At times he didn’t even appear to be paying any attention to the campaign. He was too busy being President–and doing naughty things with Monica Lewinsky.

Dole left electoral politics after the 1996 defeat; at 73, what more was there to do? He has remained, however, an activist for various causes, including the fight against hunger and advocacy for disabilities (he’s now confined to a wheelchair). He’s also maintained a remarkable sense of humor, which he exhibited in an amusing 1998 commercial for Viagra, and writing a book about Presidential humor. More recently Dole has been critical of the shambles the Republican party has become in the Obama era. Effective at his zenith in politics and also gracious in defeat, Bob Dole was at least numerically a “big loser” in 1996, but few “losers” have accomplished as much as he did in public service.

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