1984. Ronald Reagan is running for re-election. Seemingly everyone is a Republican. The "conservative revolution" is in full force. The incumbant President is enormously popular. If you believe the talking points, he won the Cold War, single-handedly defeated Communism, and cured the Common Cold. No Democrat could honestly tell you that Reagan wasn't going to be re-elected. The only thing in doubt was whether or not he would carry all 50 states.
The Democrats had to come up with a candidate to challenge (?) the sitting President. It was not good time for the Dems. Who would step up to be the sacrificial lamb? They certainly didn't want to risk an up-and-comer who might win in four years. In Walter Mondale, they found their man.
Walter Mondale was 1 and 1 in Presidential elections. He had been Jimmy Carter's VP. He was reasonably popular with the party faithful. He was a known quantity. It would be no great loss if he got trounced. So, we got Fritz.
Now, given the fact that the Democrats were going to lose anyway, there was an opportunity for a bold stroke. What can we do, the Dems asked, to energize the base; to shake up the status quo? Hey, let's put a woman on the ticket! The Democratic Party has always been the party of the people. We have always been the most inclusive and most diverse. Let's show everyone just how progressive we are by making history and being the first major party to have a woman near the top of the ticket.
And thus was Geraldine Ferraro named the Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1984. It was a pick designed to catch the Republicans off guard; to throw them off their game. If they could be distracted long enough, the Dems might just sneak in the back door of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. If not that, then the defeat might not be so bad.
Soon, however, there were problems with the pick. A scandal involving Mr. Ferraro's finances emerged. Ms. Ferraro was, shall we say, less than cautious about what she said in front of a microphone. Vice President George H.W. Bush rolled rough-shod over her in the debate.
On Election Day, Ronald Reagan won 49 states. The Democrats had the honor of making history. Gerry Ferraro became a footnote.
2008. George W. Bush is ending one of the worst presidencies in American history. Everyone is about to become a Democrat. The outgoing president is enormously unpopular. The conservatives are in disarray. War has dragged on 4+ years after "Mission Accomplished", the economy is in tatters, and homes are being lost faster than Oakland Raider football games. No Republican could honestly tell you that they would hold onto the White House. The only thing in doubt was the margin of victory for whomever the Democrats nominated.
The GOP needed a candidate. They needed their own sacrficial lamb. It was probably going to be a blood bath. As with the Democrats in 1984, an up-and-coming young neo-con with a future was not to be thrown on the pyre. The GOP would reach back to the recent past. There, they found John McCain.
Initially, John McCain looked like a stroke of genius. This was the one Republican who just might pull off the upset. He had always had some popularity among Democrats. He was a bona fide American hero. He was at least moderate on many issues of concern to Democrats. He might distract the Democrats. He would at least keep it close and win the red states.
So, the Republicans asked, what else can we do to shake things up? Hey, remember 1984? The Democrats put that woman on the ticket. But, didn't they lose badly? Sure, but that was to St. Ronald. Nobody's gonna be that good ever again. But, John wants Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge as his running mate. Are you kidding? A Democrat or a pro-choice guy? The base will kill us and we need to get jobs when this is over. Yeah, you're right. So, who do we have?
And thus was Sarah Palin named as the Republican candidate for Vice President in 2008. Wow, said the base. This is great. We'll show those dumb old Dems who the progressive party is. They just rejected another female candidate. All those women who voted for Hillary Clinton will vote with us because of Sarah. There was a 10-point bump for the Republican ticket. It was now a horse race.
Soon, however, there were problems with the pick. Within hours of the announcement, it was revealed that Gov. Palin's eldest daughter was pregnant. 17 years old, not married, and pregnant. This for a candidate who believes "abstinence-only" is the most effective method of sex education. Then, there were rumors that she had abused her power as governor for personal reasons. Then, she opened her mouth without benefit of a teleprompter.
On Election Day, Barack Obama won the Presidency by a 2-to-1 margin in the Electoral Vote. John McCain bowed out gracefully. Sarah Palin became a footnote; at least for now.
Voters and political parties sometimes view elections in different ways. Voters want a candidate they can support. They want someone who they can believe in; someone they will be proud to pull a lever for in the voting booth. Voters want someone who can win, now. Political parties usually want the same thing. But, sometimes, there is a reality at work that counters immediate desire. Sometimes, political parties know they are just gonna get creamed. At these times, the party has to consider its' future. They are willing to accept defeat in the short run for the prospect of a big win down the road. It's much like when professional sports teams trade away a veteran from quality prospects.
The Democratic Party in 1984 and the GOP in 2008 both knew it just wasn't their year. They both fielded a team that was inferior to their opponents, knowing they were going to lose. But, they protected their prospects and continued to groom the up-and-comers in the hope of better seasons to come.
For the Democrats, it ultimately was a young, charismatic governor from Arkansas. For the GOP, the picture remains murky at present. But, they didn't throw Pawlenty, Romney, or Jindal to the lions. All they lost were an aging veteran and a minor leaguer who was never going to make the show.
Walter Mondale and John McCain both have had distinguished political careers. They have each served their country with honor, grace, and dignity. They were also each called upon to fall on their swords for the good of the party. These men will forever be remembered as throwaway candidates. No deposit, no return.