Don’t stop trying just because you lost
Columnist Susan Estrich reflects on 1980 to put the recent presidential election in perspective.
If you think Nov. 8 was bad, you might not have been around on election night in 1980. Now that was a landslide. We sort of knew it was turning after the one and only debate, and most of us out “in the field” got a call that morning telling us the last poll indicated landslide-level bad news. But absolutely no one (outside some bubble somewhere) ever thought that the president of the United States would concede in the 8 o’clock hour Eastern. For the next three hours, they played the scenes: Jimmy Carter conceding; Ronald Reagan accepting; voters in line in California going back to their cars; and Senate legends dropping like flies. I finally took to drinking, like everyone else.
When I woke up, head throbbing, radio announcers were talking about Democrats’ losing the Senate. I called Ted Kennedy’s office. “Senator Kennedy’s office,” the receptionist answered, and I could hear that she was crying. That’s when I really knew.
Unlike our current presidentelect, President Reagan actually did have a mandate, which is to say he ran on a set of basic plans and his voters actually agreed with him. That’s not to mention the fact that his election, along with cleaning out the administration, purged staffers from the well-paid positions the committee majority gets. This meant half the Democrats in Washington were unemployed, and the ones who weren’t were running for cover to survive the Reagan Revolution. No one was shy about being pictured with the new president and his attractive, age-appropriate-yet-stylish wife. In other words, it was a really awful time to be a Democrat in Washington, especially a Kennedy Democrat, or one of Ted Kennedy’s staff. I shared a tiny back office with the late Ron Brown and the political director of the campaign, Carl Wagner. We tried to figure out what we could possibly do that would win more than about three votes. And the House was generally hopeless, because if you added the conservative Southern Dems to the Republicans, Reagan had a working majority. Was I, lucky as I was to be employed on a liberal island, a little bit bored?
One day, I was strolling the hallways, as I sometimes did, and I ran into one of my heroes, the first black female lawyer in Mississippi, the woman who literally introduced Bobby Kennedy to poverty, and the founder and heart of the Children’s Defense Fund: Marian Wright Edelman. I actually knew her because I’d worked for her equally wonderful husband, Kennedy’s aide in those days, Peter Edelman. There she was, a woman in her early 40s, lugging some heavy bags full of white papers and reports and all the things people would have to lug around in those days to convince members of Congress, or maybe just their staff members, not to decimate their favorite programs. And since everything was on the chopping block and Democrats had no power and, as former Republican leader Sen. Bob Dole once famously said, there are no PACs for poor children, it was really about as terrible a time as possible to be an advocate for poor children whose parents didn’t vote, much less make campaign contributions. Marian Edelman could well have sat it out for 11 years: One of her young lawyers, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was married to a man who would then take the Oval Office. But even if Edelman could have seen the future, she never would have considered idly sitting by in the interim. “What are you doing?” I asked her, although it was obvious. She told me she was there advocating for programs that helped the children most in need.
“Not very popular these days,” I said stupidly. She looked at me as if I were a serious person, which was only sometimes true in those days: “You never stop just because you lose.” No one gets out with an unbroken series of wins, unless it really is rigged. And the challenge, the test, the measure of us, is the way we play our bad cards, not our good ones. If you stop every time you lose, you won’t be playing when you’re most needed.
Do it differently. Do it your way. But start; don’t stop. Don’t let our losses be for naught, or worse.