Farris starts with Clay and moves on to Stephen Douglas, William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith, Thomas E. Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Ross Perot and – in a combined chapter – the recent candidacies of Al Gore, John Kerry, and John McCain. He describes the circumstances that gave rise to each of these seminal “losers” – the causes they rallied around, the unique personalities they possessed – and how their presidential losses laid the groundwork for later political victories, if not for themselves, then for their parties or their cub causes.
Douglas is forever linked to Lincoln, both as the loser of the 1860 presidential election and for their series of well-known debates. In one of those exchanges, Douglas said, “I care more for the great principle of self-government, the right of the people to rule, than I do for all the negroes in Christendom,” the kind of regrettable comment that assures he will always stand as the flip side to Lincoln’s secular sainthood. Given all Douglas accomplished, though, that’s unfair, Farris explains.
After Douglas’ loss to Lincoln, he remained committed to the Union and he insisted that his fellow Democrats remain independent from Republicans even as they remained loyal to the Union – a tack that had enormous ramifications, Farris says. “While unity may seem critical in a time of time civil war, scholars have concluded that continued partisan bickering was to the Union’s benefit.” In doing so, Douglas saved the Democratic Party, “which remains the longest, continually functioning political party in the world.”