The obituaries for Pat Schroeder, the Colorado liberal who for 24 years served as one of the most dynamic members of Congress and who died on Monday at age 82, made only a brief mention of her thwarted bid for the 1988 Democratic nomination. But the “Schroeder for President” boomlet that played out during the summer of 1987 was more than a footnote.
At a point in American political history when Joe Biden was forced to fold his first campaign for the presidency after a series of embarrassing missteps, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was pushing the party to make a deeper commitment to economic and social and racial justice, and when a Massachusetts technocrat named Michael Dukakis eventually won the Democratic nod, Schroeder—a visionary feminist, courageous congressional reformer, advocate for disarmament, skilled legislator, and masterful quipster who first used the word “Teflon” to describe Ronald Reagan’s unaccountable presidency—briefly emerged as a serious contender. There but for fortune, she might have been the first woman nominated by a major party for president. She might have changed American politics forever.
But, as Schroeder explained, “the system” got in the way. Frequently absurd and sexist media coverage, and the barriers to raising sufficient money to keep pace with politically well-connected men—such as future Vice President Al Gore and future House majority leader Dick Gephardt—upended her candidacy before it was formally announced. Twenty-eight more years would pass before Democrats finally nominated a woman for the nation’s top job, and we don’t need to be reminded that she didn’t win.
Schroeder was not the first woman to entertain thoughts of bidding for a major party’s presidential nod. Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith made a credible, if severely underfunded, run for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination that would eventually go to her conservative rival, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Eight years later, New York Representative Shirley Chisholm overcame media neglect and establishment rejection to become the first woman to win a presidential preference primary, eventually garnering more than 150 delegate votes at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. But Schroeder had a moment in 1987 when it felt as if she might get much further than her predecessors. Indeed, when it felt as if she could upend the conventional wisdom and transform not just her party but her nation.
The outspoken House member had begun the 1988 campaign season as a leading supporter of Senator Gary Hart’s high-flying candidacy for the Democratic nomination. After her fellow Coloradan’s bid collapsed—following the publication of photos of him partying on a boat named “Monkey Business” with a woman who was not his wife—Hart backers and others began urging Schroeder to run. The clamor grew so great that Schroeder launched an exploratory campaign that became a political phenomenon.
The as-yet-unannounced candidate traveled the country in the summer of 1987 with almost no staff and flying in coach. The response was electric. Polls quickly identified her as one of the top contenders in the first primary state of New Hampshire and the first caucus state of Iowa—and a national survey for Time magazine eventually put her in third place. When Schroeder visited those key states, Kathy Bonk, a National Organization for Women activist who helped get the exploratory campaign going, noted, “At every turn people are eager to meet Schroeder, and an encouraging pattern develops: The turnout at each of her stops is double what we’d expected.” In Minnesota, an event organized by Secretary of State Joan Growe that was expected to draw 250 people attracted 1,200. Reporters started to refer to Schroeder and the pack of male contenders for the nomination as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
But even as Bonk and other aides explored a strategy that they hoped would see Schroeder run well in Iowa and New Hampshire and then score breakthrough wins in Minnesota and other states, there was a problem. Schroeder had said from the start of her exploratory campaign: “No dough, no go.” Strategists felt she needed to raise $2 million—a relatively small amount for today’s presidential contenders, but a substantial figure in those days—to remain competitive in the early stages of the race. While Schroeder attracted small donations from grassroots activists, she was nowhere near the $2 million goal by the point in September when she felt she needed to formally announce her candidacy.
At the same time, Schroeder expressed increasing frustration with the vapid nature of “photo opportunity” campaign coverage and the lack of emphasis on the issues that mattered to her: enacting a family and medical leave law; expanding access to health care; disarmament; and equal rights. “I realized that America was not man enough to elect a woman,” she would eventually say. “Imagine the frustration I felt when, after giving a speech on the ‘Rendezvous with Reality’ this nation needed, the first question would be, ‘Why are you running as a woman?’ It was heartbreaking to face the many ways in which my gender eclipsed my message and to realize that running a symbolic campaign was the best I could hope for.”
Betty Friedan and others urged Schroeder to mount a campaign with what she had. But Schroeder was unwilling to launch a symbolic campaign. If she was going to bid to be the first woman president, she wanted to have a serious chance of winning.
“I cannot run a campaign that would let you down,” Schroeder told several thousand supporters, many of whom were shocked by the decision she announced on September 29, 1987. After Schroeder explained, “I could not figure out how to run,” The New York Times reported:
[S]he paused, overcome by emotion and unable to finish the sentence. Her audience applauded encouragement. She resumed: “I could not figure out how to run and not be separated from those I serve. There must be a way, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Schroeder then delivered a sober critique of “the system” that then existed for nominating presidential candidates.
”We’ve got to make the system more open and responsive, we’ve got to change the process,” she argued. She said she thought she “could compete in the popular vote,” but expressed frustration that, under party rules, she could win primaries and caucuses in key states and still not get the majority of delegates. That has proven to be an ongoing frustration in a party that still sees debates about “superdelegates,” the influence of corporate money, the manipulation of primary schedules, and other barriers to grassroots power.
”I could not find any way that we could really run the kind of campaign I wanted to run if we were targeting delegates and still trying to talk to people, which is what keeps me going as a human being,” said Schroeder, with typical bluntness, on that September day in 1987. “It’s hard to do the grassroots thing and the delegate thing simultaneously. I want to find a way to break through that process, but at this moment I don’t see it, today.”
Pat Schroeder was not the first potential candidate to forgo a presidential bid out of frustration with the fundraising demands, dumbed-down media, and arcane rules that make bidding for the White House such a daunting and frequently disappointing task. And she won’t be the last. But she was surely one of the finest, and we ought not forget how close the Democratic Party and the country came to having a visionary progressive woman bid for the presidency in 1988. Her honest assessment of the reasons for deciding not to do so provided a reminder then, as now, of how right Schroeder always was when she said, “America needs a different kind of politics.”