Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) in 2014 in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Opinion writer

I thought it a little odd that former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who has been out of office for three years, would appear this week at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference. Then this news broke:

Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts who has largely shunned politics since leaving office and joining Bain Capital in 2015, is using some of his most direct language to date to acknowledge his interest in a presidential run in 2020.

“It’s on my radar screen,” Patrick told KCUR, a public radio station in Kansas City, where he was traveling last week for a civic event called “An Evening with Deval Patrick: Reinvesting in America.” . . .

Patrick told KCUR “it’s a huge decision.”

“I am trying to think through 2020, and that’s a decision I’m trying to think through from a personal and family point of view and also whether what I believe is going to be on offer by somebody,” Patrick said. “And if it’s on offer by somebody then maybe what I can do is help that person. But we’ll see.”

Unlike the field of possible aspirants in the Senate — Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — Patrick has not been part of the Beltway food fight. He has not cast controversial votes, nor has he gotten himself too far out on an ideological limb that he would be hampered in a general election. He would bring more gravitas than many contenders in the Senate, and can point to actual accomplishments in Massachusetts (He experienced failures and scandals as well). He is a figure who may be able to unite the Hillary Clinton wing and the Sanders wing of the party. At 61, he is more youthful than a slew of possible Democratic contenders — former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. (75), Warren (68), Sanders (76) — and certainly more so than President Trump (71). If the Democrats are to win the suburban vote (especially suburban women) and energize the African American vote, Patrick may fit the bill. There is a reason why former advisers to President Barack Obama (e.g., David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett) have urged Patrick to run.

Aside from Biden and Sanders (who got kid-gloves treatment in a race he was never expected to win), the rest of the favorite names bandied about as Democratic contenders have not experienced the constant scrutiny that comes when they run for president. If you haven’t run before, the next best thing might to be to staff up with people who have operated winning campaigns. It will be interesting to see who on the Obama team wants to try to make it two for two.

Just as any of the Democrats contemplating a run in 2020, Patrick — if he chooses to get in — will have to defend his record, fight for attention in a crowded field and contend with a stream of invectives and barbs from Trump (if he’s still around). He will need to fend off attacks from the left on his tenure at Bain Capital. Most of all, he will need to put forth a unifying, optimistic vision that excites both the Democratic base and, eventually, the general electorate.

He has slowly been increasing his visibility (at AIPAC; in Alabama campaigning for Sen. Doug Jones). Beyond that, it would do him (and frankly all candidates) well to use time when scrutiny is low to travel, brush up on foreign policy and come up with a forward-looking agenda that is more than just a list of government programs. The 2020 election seems eons away, but the race will effectively begin the day after the midterm elections in November. And, you know, Election Day a mere 243 days away.