Mitt Romney’s announcement that he would not seek the US Presidency for a third time gave me cause to consider again what F. Scott Fitzgerald really meant when he wrote that “there are no second acts in American life.” One school of thought promotes a straightforward interpretation: there are no second acts because American life does not allow an actor, in whatever sphere, to overcome initial failure. Another argues that Fitzgerald was critiquing the modern desire for swift resolutions, a trait which does not allow for complex resolutions to complex problems.
The sentence appeared in his book, The Last Tycoon, published in 1941, three years before Thomas Dewey’s first run as the Republican Party nominee for the presidency. Defeated by FDR, Dewey ran again in 1948, becoming infamous for his loss to Harry Truman despite opinion polls, and the famous ‘Dewey defeats Truman’ headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, suggesting otherwise.
In 1968, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2008 and 2012, the Republicans nominated a candidate who had previously sought the nomination. Electoral history seems to prove Fitzgerald wrong. There are second, and in some cases, third, acts at the highest levels of American public life. Some are even successful. Richard Nixon (1968, 1972) and George H.W. Bush (1988) made it to the Oval Office before the curtain fell on their time on the political stage.
And yet, as with so much in politics, there is another way of looking at things. Take the second, more modern, interpretation of what Fitzgerald said. The choice between easy answers and those more complex. This, in a sense, is the history of the Republican Party since Nixon’s epoch-defining defeat of JFK, the debate between the Grand Old Party establishment and rebellious conservative republicanism. From 1964 and Barry Goldwater’s campaign onwards, every contested Republican primary has essentially been between establishment candidate(s) against more conservative ones. Continuing after the Nixon interlude with Gerald Ford’s 1976 primary battle with Ronald Reagan, Reagan’s run against Bush in 1980, Bush against Dole in 1988 and against Pat Robertson in 1992, the ebb and flow has continued into the 21st century with McCain v Romney and Romney v Santorum. Even George W. Bush in 2000 had opposition from his political right.
It is now less than a year until voters in Iowa will cast the first ballots of the 2016 Republican primaries. Between now and then they will hear the latest airing of this great debate. Mitt Romney isn’t going to run a third time but Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee will likely have a second go. Their second acts will be part of the wider discussion about the future direction of their party. The establishment, represented by Jeb Bush, will take on the more conservative wing, potentially including Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson. Then there are those whose place on the stage is harder to quantify – Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Lindsay Graham to name but three.
Comparisons between US and UK politics are overdone. That the conservative party of the United States will debate its future direction at the same time as the conservative party on this side of the Atlantic faces a post-2015, and possibly post-David Cameron, future could have interesting consequences though.
The New York Times wrote of F. Scott Fitzgerald that he “was better than he knew.” He was, on a great many levels. His most quoted sentence was not directly about politics, yet its subtleties reflect a debate that continues to be played out atop one of the United State’s dominant political parties. In just over a year we will know who has won this round.