The news that Jon Huntsman was dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination triggered a flood of memories and thoughts about what it’s like to run for office. Exactly ten years ago, I was embroiled in an intense campaign for Congress in Montgomery County, Maryland. Fearful about what the presidency of George W. Bush would mean for the country, in early 2001, I sought the Democratic nomination to run against Connie Morella, the Republican incumbent. Soon afterward, two well- known and well-regarded state legislators, Chris Van Hollen and Mark Shriver, joined the race. The quality of the candidates, including the moderate and popular Ms. Morella, generated an unusual amount of press and public interest. The Washington Post headlined its first front page story: “Shaping up to be an amazing race,” and several others followed..”
I had thought about running for office for many years, and it proved to be an exciting, exhilarating and exhausting experience. I had worked in the Senate and the Clinton administration, but Shriver and Van Hollen were far better known than I was. We ran the campaign out of the basement of my house for a year before renting an office in Bethesda. I loved many aspects of campaigning—meeting voters, engaging in debates, plotting strategy, cutting TV ads. Being the clear underdog, I won some attention by calling myself “the overdog.” My supporters greeted morning traffic holding up messages about the campaign, ending with me holding a sign “I’m Ira.” I didn’t love fundraising—who does?—but eventually raised $800,000 without any PAC money. By the summer of 2002, the local press reported that I had run a “great campaign” and had “come out of nowhere to make it a three man race.”
I was thrilled when the Potomac Journal said my campaign was “the antidote to cynicism” that I had promised to deliver. The polls showed I had convinced Montgomery County voters that I would be a strong member of Congress. Unfortunately for me, the voters also thought Van Hollen and Shriver would be very good members of Congress, and many appreciated the fact that Chris and Mark had served multiple terms in the state legislature. Voters decided the race was between Van Hollen and Shriver, and I slipped to a distant third, as Van Hollen edged Shriver narrowly, and went on to defeat Rep. Morella.
When you pour all your energy into a political race, and don’t win, it’s terribly disappointing. But I couldn’t find any cosmic injustice in losing to a great candidate who already had spent 12 years in the state legislature. I count Chris and Mark among my good friends, and I’m not surprised that Chris quickly emerged as a leader in the House and the Democratic party nationally.
I came away with a vivid sense of “what it takes” (Richard Ben Cramer’s phrase) to be in politics. I was lucky that my wife loved the campaign and my children were grown. The consequences of having a campaign debt to pay off, and need to rebuild my law practice, proved manageable. But it is an extremely demanding life—not like most normal people’s—and those who put themselves out there deserve our admiration, win or lose. I sometimes think about Jerry Brown, elected Governor of California in 1974, and returning to the office 36 years later, after being Mayor of Oakland and state attorney general. Brown is an extraordinary example, but most political candidates run for the best of reasons. They want to serve. They see it as the highest calling.
America needs good men and women who continue to feel that way. I worry about a political system that require candidates to raise three or four times more than I raised ten years ago. I also worry about a political culture that is so toxic, unforgiving and partisan that good people will be repelled from seeking office. When I ran for Congress, I was sure that I could accomplish important things if I got elected. Having watched Congress spiral downward in the last decade, would I still be sure now? In addition to strong candidates, we need functional institutions to give them a fighting chance to address our nation’s problems if they are elected.
Because of my upcoming book, I am now part of the vast “chattering class.” And thoughtful commentary and robust debate over ideas are fundamentally important to our democracy. But we should never forget Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous statement:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”