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So You Think You Want to Run for President …

A handy checklist for the 2020 Democratic hopefuls

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are said to be contemplating presidential runs in 2020. If they do, Shapiro writes, they’d better be ready to answer a simple question: “Why do you want to be president?” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are said to be contemplating presidential runs in 2020. If they do, Shapiro writes, they’d better be ready to answer a simple question: “Why do you want to be president?” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — In most over-stuffed and over-sweet-potatoed families during Thanksgiving week, dinner table conversation revolves around new jobs, new children and grandchildren and vacation plans. But this holiday season in maybe two-dozen homes across America, the new-job talk is about someone in the family running for Democratic nomination for president.

Not every would-be presidential candidate is as methodical as Mitt Romneywho presided over a family roll-call vote in December 2010 about the merits of a 2012 presidential campaign. (The verdict was overwhelmingly “no,” but Ann Romney cast the decisive “yes” vote.) But just about everyone contemplating a White House run traditionally spends the weeks after the midterm elections debating the pros and cons with family and longtime friends.

Virtually all the 2020 Democrats (who may end up a larger group than a 15-player rugby team) will be first-time candidates. So, as a columnist who has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns, I offer this checklist to help these Oval Office dreamers make their decisions.

The Roger Mudd question

In late 1979, with Ted Kennedy poised to challenge Jimmy Carter in 1980, the CBS newsman asked the simplest possible question, “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy’s hesitant, stumbling response — dotted with partial sentences and clotted with clichés — was a profile in inarticulateness and a major blow to his fledgling campaign.

Ever since, campaign consultants have made sure that candidates memorize a clear and not muddy response to the inevitable Mudd question. But to run for president — and more important, to successfully serve — you need to be able to privately answer that question to yourself in front of the bathroom mirror.

Also Watch: Now That That’s Over (Mostly) Roll Call Looks Ahead to 2020

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It takes a village

For children and teenagers — especially shy ones — having a parent run for president can be an ordeal likely to be someday discussed with a therapist.

One of the most poignant campaign trail stories came in 2007 when Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd enrolled his six-year-old daughter Grace in Des Moines public schools during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. But Grace, according to her parents, kept worrying that Santa Claus couldn’t find her in Iowa.

Touring all 99 Iowa counties in an SUV with your family — a familiar campaign gambit — also gives new meaning to a child’s plaintive cry from the backseat, “Are we there yet?”

None of this is a definitive argument not to run. But anyone contemplating a grueling two-year (if you’re very lucky) quest for the presidency should be aware of the collateral damage to his or her family.

Money talks

The question, though, for 2020 is how loudly will money talk. With Mike Bloomberg and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer likely to run, every candidate who has spent his or her career in public life will be hard-pressed to compete in the battle for TV ratings points.

But money has never been destiny in presidential politics. Just ask Jeb Bush, whose super PAC alone raised more than $110 million for 2016. The months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will be boom times for Netflix and Amazon as desperate voters cut the cord to avoid the nonstop campaign commercials on network television.

Here are the two money questions that all putative candidates have to answer: Can I raise enough money to make a reasonably competitive effort? And do my consultants have innovative ideas on how to effectively spend that money without squandering every dollar on 30-second TV spots?

‘The vision thing’

Getting ready to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1987, George H.W. Bush bristled at the need to deal with “the vision thing.” In truth, most successful presidential candidates do have an authentic message that can be boiled down to a few words like Jimmy Carter’s “a government as good as the American people” and Barack Obama’s promise of “hope and change.”

The current postelection debate raging among Democrats is over whether the 2020 nominee must go left with Bernie Sanders-like calls for government-paid health care and free college tuition or whether the party should nominate a Bill Clinton-esque centrist. Passions on this question are already at a fever pitch even though no major candidate has even entered the race.

In truth, the 2020 Democratic race is more likely to be about vision and victory over Donald Trump than an ideological struggle. Remember that the issue differences between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 proved to be fleeting and forgettable. Even Sanders’ robust challenge to Clinton in 2016 was as much about authenticity (never Hillary’s strong suit) as it was about a leftwing message.

My advice to 2020 Democrats: Know in mind-numbing detail where you stand on the issues. But don’t fall into the trap of trying to reshape your record by catering to perceptions of what activists or establishmentarians might demand in a candidate.

The poll tax

The one certainty in presidential politics is that the pundits and the prognosticators will be wrong. They didn’t see Carter coming in 1976 or Howard Dean in 2004 or Sanders in 2016. But, boy, were the TV experts certain at this time in late 2014 that the GOP nominee had to be Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker.

Even the glib talk about candidates competing in different lanes makes it seem like the 2020 Democratic race will take place in a bowling alley. Similarly, the stubborn attempts by pundits to divide the candidates into tiers should bring anyone to tears.

Premature polls are the worst barometer of all. Candidates break through the clutter when voters are paying attention — and rarely a year in advance. So, in deciding whether to run, go with your instincts rather than stale calculations about current front-runners.

To talk turkey, the final question for any potential candidate has to be: Am I a gambler and a grabber for the brass ring or is my preferred role serving as the designated driver for the entire Democratic Party?

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter@MrWalterShapiro.

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