The Ticket

Would Rick Perry be a better presidential candidate if he had lost an election at some point?

Chris Moody
The Ticket

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Perry (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

If Rick Perry defeats Barack Obama in November 2012, he would become the first person to be elected president after never losing a race in his political career since John F. Kennedy more than half a century earlier.

The eight presidents elected to the office since JFK--Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama--each faced at least one electoral defeat before their rise to the nation's highest office.

Perry, the three-term governor of Texas, has never had to phone an opponent on election night to concede a race.  Perry was elected to the Texas legislature as a Democrat in 1984, where he remained until his election to agriculture commissioner as a Republican in 1990. Eight years later, he was elected lieutenant governor. He made it to the governor's mansion in 2000 when Bush left to run for president.

That unblemished record makes him sound like an especially formidable presidential candidate. But as those other eight presidents might tell you, there's something to be gained by having felt the agony of political defeat.

When President Barack Obama lost his bid for Congress against Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000, he learned a few things about politics that he said, in hindsight, would be difficult to understand had he not been through it.

"I had to really look into myself and say, why am I doing this?" he told National Public radio four years later. "Is it to get attention or is it to help people?"

Obama probably wouldn't have been elected president in 2008 if it weren't for the House loss. He was elected to the Senate in 2004 and it was that election that propelled him to the White House in 2008. Had he started in the House, it may have taken Obama a few more election cycles to make a run for president.

The defeat also motivated Obama to become a better politician.

"I still burn, for example, with the thought of my one loss in politics," Obama wrote in his 2006 memoir "The Audacity of Hope," "It was a race in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong, in which my own mistakes were compounded by tragedy and farce."

Former President Bill Clinton, who lost his reelection campaign to the Arkansas governorship in 1980, fell into a "depression" after his loss, according to "A Woman in Charge," Carl Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton "wallowed in self-pity," Bernstein writes, "flagellating himself for bad decisions."

"He really felt like a sackcloth and ashes," the former Clinton aide Betsey Wright says in the book. "And that people should be flogging him with whips or something."

And, as everyone knows, Clinton learned from the experience. He bounced back, won re-election as governor and moved into the White House after his successful 1992 campaign.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is Perry's top rival at this point in the campaign, lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination just three years ago. Romney talked about what he learned from his failed bid during a forum in 2010. He stressed the importance of focusing on his personal strengths.

"One of the things that's important in running a good campaign is to make sure that you're known for the things that really motivate you, and I needed to do a better job to focus my campaign on the economy and getting the economy right and creating jobs," Romney said, according to a CBS News report. "And whether through my ads or through my responses to debate questions or on the stump, you know, my power alley is the economy."

Perry, on the other hand, has never been forced to examine his flaws as a candidate after a political defeat.

Perry has not been a candidate who takes major political risks, said Mark Jones, a longtime observer of Texas politics and the chairman of the department of political science at Rice University in Houston.

"He doesn't run in races that he doesn't think he can win,"Jones said in an interview with The Ticket. "I think he definitely thinks he can win the Republican primary. I don't think he has any doubt that he can win the primary. And I think at that point, he's willing to take a risk."

Jones doesn't think that Perry's undefeated record in politics is a bad thing for his presidential candidacy.

"When you win election after election and you never experience defeat, you develop a bit of invincibility toward things," he said. "That level of confidence can help you have a positive effect on everybody, ranging from you, your inner circle, your supporters to actual voters."

But a feeling of invincibility doesn't make you invincible. Gerald Ford had never lost a political race when he became president after Richard Nixon's resignation, but when Ford had to actually run for the office, he was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential campaign.

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