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Grab a spoon: Bitter political rivals end up eating their words at the party convention

Screengrab from a Democratic primary debate in 1992. Jerry Brown (left) tussles with Bill Clinton (right).
Screengrab from a Democratic primary debate in 1992. Jerry Brown (left) tussles with Bill Clinton (right).

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As the primary contests wind down, and the presumptive nominees turn their sights to November, bitter foes on both sides of the political aisle have started dialing back their heated rhetoric. 

But this is far from the first time former rivals have had to mend fences with the presidency on the line. So what makes a graceful about-face? 

Take Two took a look back at some of the best presidential backtrackers in recent memory with Sam Popkin, who has advised for several presidential campaigns. He is also the author of the book, “The Candidate: What it Takes to Win -- and Hold -- The White House.” 

Why do former presidential candidates dial it back?

“They want to be ready for the next time,” Popkin said. “They want to act loyal enough, so they don’t alienate the winner’s people while secretly praying that he loses, and they want to keep faith with their followers, so they’re ready for the next time when they hope to win.”

Bill Clinton vs. Jerry Brown 

President Bill Clinton sat down with California Governor Jerry Brown at the governor’s mansion this Monday. It’s a scene that might have seemed impossible 24 years ago when they competed for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

“1992 was Jerry’s third race, and he jumped in with angry attacks on Bill Clinton. Much harsher than even Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton,” Popkin said. 

Here’s a clip from a particularly contentious primary debate in 1992:

Popkin says Clinton and Brown buried the hatchet because the both have likely come to the conclusion that they’re just too old to be petty. 

“I think now at this point they’re old warriors. Old enemies have more in common than almost anybody else because they remember how much fun they had when they were the stars,” Popkin said. 

Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan

It was a contentious and awkward political climate: a sitting president was challenged by a member of his party — and the challenger almost won. 

“It was very acrimonious,” says Sam Popkin. “It was as bitter as I can remember many races and he (Reagan) was really rallying forces that had been in the party since the Goldwater defeat.”

Here’s Ronald Reagan’s concession speech:

Well-played, says Sam Popkin. “You want to act like you really want your party to win. You want to remind your party why we hate the other party; then you want to do just enough so nobody can say you didn’t try.” 

He adds that Reagan didn’t really try to help Ford after that. It’s now clear why that was. 

Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton

Sam Popkin says the tense primary race of 2008 led to a rift in the Democratic Party. That all culminated in Clinton’s concession speech. 

“It was very touchy,” Popkin says. “A lot of African-American supporters of Hillary were angry at Obama, who wasn’t ‘black enough.’ There were generational splits in families, and it was very passionate."

Clinton’s concession:

So, let’s talk about Sanders … 

“He’s doing what he needs to [in order to] get to the convention and make as much of a footprint as he can for his legacy,” Popkin says. “Only at the end of June when people have calmed down will we really get a sense of whether he actually wants Hillary to win, or he really wants to change the party. Ronald Reagan acted like he wanted to work with Jerry Ford and then he didn’t.”

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