Nation & World

'Considering it,' 'Looking at things': How 2020 Democrats mastered the coy art of mulling

Beto O’Rourke (with wife Amy) is one of the Democratic politicians who are mulling a presidential bid. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez
Beto O’Rourke (with wife Amy) is one of the Democratic politicians who are mulling a presidential bid. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez
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In the world according to Democrats, the president is a bully, a sexist, a criminal and a megalomaniac. Democracy and its institutions are under siege. The time has come to take urgent action.

But first ... some “mulling.”

Joe Biden has made it known that he’s “the most qualified” person to be the next president — but he wants to run it by his family first. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio shifted his stance from “not actively considering” a 2020 campaign to “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t considering it.” And Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, is somewhere between “wondering” about a White House bid and “seriously thinking” about it.

While competing organizations are begging Rep. Beto O’Rourke to run, the departing congressman from Texas maintains that he and his wife are simply thinking “about what we can do next to contribute to the best of our ability.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said he would spend the holidays “looking at things” — things which presumably include polling data and resumes for field staff. And in a bold, early move, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts released a slick, soaring video Monday announcing her decision to ... form a committee to explore the possibility of running for president.

“People hate all that stuff,” said Rep. John Delaney, D-Md. “One thing we are learning in politics is people want authenticity. This cat-and-mouse game does rub people the wrong way.”

Delaney is perhaps the best-positioned Democrat to say, get in or get out already. The little-known congressman announced his own bid for the presidency way back in July ... of 2017.

“When I go to Iowa, a lot of people thanked me,” said Delaney, who chose early on not to seek a fourth term in Congress to focus on his long-shot quest to lead the nation. “Not for running for president, per se, but for being honest with them about my intentions.”

In fairness, the decision to run for president is a big one. The more anyone thinks about it, the less they would want to do it. There’s the fundraising, the time away from families, the pretending you care about ethanol subsidies in Iowa or enjoy the food at that South Carolina fish fry, the negative stories published about you and the ones you love.

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“There is so much of your private life you sacrifice to do this,” Amy O’Rourke said in an interview during her husband’s failed Texas Senate campaign last year. “A presidential campaign is just not something that would ever appeal to me. You just cross a line that you almost forego being able to have any real life as a family.”

And that’s coming from a woman whose family lived much of last year on Facebook Live.

Every potential candidate has different things to weigh. O’Rourke has young children: Are they up for this? Brown just depleted most of his fundraising to win re-election in Ohio: Does he actually have the wherewithal to take on a truly competitive race? Biden is as popular as he’s ever been: Is he really willing to have his name dragged through the mud in a race that’s no sure thing?

It’s been said there’s no downside to running for president — that in the worst-case scenario your book sales spike, your speaking fees rise, and you find a nice soft landing spot on cable television. But then again, you could end up like Gary Hart or John Edwards, an also-ran unable to outrun a tarnished reputation. Even worse, you could win and never get the chance to start your own grievance-fueled broadcast network, destined instead to brood and fume in a lonely White House.

So how, exactly, does someone go about making a decision of this magnitude?

Brown has been talking it through on a daily basis with his wife and confidant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist, Connie Schultz.

“It’s like popcorn ricocheting in a hot skillet,” Schultz said about the process. “It’s all over the place.”

Yes, she said, the problems the country faces are existential. But deciding to run for president — especially in a cycle that is expected to serve up all kinds of nasty — comes with its own existential dread.

“Do you really not want to see your dog?” Schultz said she asks her husband. “He’s too long to take on a plane!”

But the struggle to make a decision is a healthy thing, she contends: We probably don’t want to elect someone who has known all along that they want to be president.

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“I have said many times I love being married to a man who looks in the mirror and doesn’t see the next president of the United States,” she said, though adding that she feels a little differently now “because of Trump.” Still, running for president should be rooted in a “heartfelt commitment to public service,” she said, not personal ambition.

Which, of course, is why so few people have come right out and said they want to be president. They have to be “called;” no one wants to be seen as too eager. It’s one of the many reasons potential candidates are holding off on their candidacies, along with the complications of hiring staff, coordinating post-announcement trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, and timing their kickoff speeches with the start of a fundraising quarter.

During the 2016 election, Julián Castro was seen by many as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton. It didn’t happen. But the process primed him to put serious thought into a national campaign, and after talking it over with his wife, and doing the requisite amount of mulling, the former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary launched his exploratory committee in December.

Why? “It allows you to raise money,” he said.

So why not just announce a presidential run?

“Folks should stay tuned for Jan. 12th,” he said. In the meantime, Castro continues to talk things through with friends and advisers. He’s even seeking a coveted sit-down with former President Barack Obama to talk things through, he said.

Soon we can finally go from dozens of candidates weighing their options to dozens of candidates admitting they want to be president. If that makes you feel a bit ambivalent, you’re not alone.

“Of course I would like to have cleared the field,” said Delaney. “But I’m looking forward to the race actually beginning and having some people to run against.”

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