In late 1979, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was preparing a primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, he sat for an interview with Roger Mudd of CBS News. “Why do you want to be president?” Mudd asked. Kennedy paused as though he hadn’t considered the question before, then gave a somewhat rambling answer. Whether it actually had much to do with Kennedy’s failure to unseat Carter, it was portrayed in the media as a disastrous mistake, instructing all future candidates to have a crisp, clear, concise answer to that question.
Or at least you'd think it would have taught that lesson. In fact, many of the Democrats running for president have, if not no answer at all, at least an unsatisfying answer to the question of why they're running.
So I’m going to break down the (usually) unspoken answers to that question, the real rationales behind these many, many candidacies.
Before we do, there’s another entrant: Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.), who just announced that he is running, joining fellow House members Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Tim Ryan (Ohio), and Eric Swalwell (Calif.), as well as recently departed representatives Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) and John Delaney (Md.). There was once a time when it was assumed that unless you had been either a senator, governor, vice president, Cabinet secretary, or perhaps a general, you simply didn’t have the gravitas to run for president. But the rules are different now — or at least everyone assumes they are.
When they get asked why they’re running, most candidates talk about something external to themselves: because this is such a critical moment in our history, or because President Trump presents such an emergency. Moulton’s announcement video declares: “I’m running because we have to beat Donald Trump, and I want us to beat Donald Trump because I love this country.”
Which is fair enough, but it doesn’t tell voters why they should pick Moulton and not someone else who also thinks we have to beat Trump and also loves this country, a description that would fit every other candidate, not to mention another 100 million or so Americans.
So what are the real underlying rationales candidates offer? Let’s break them down:
I have the most experience. This used to be a much bigger deal back when parties regularly gave the nomination to someone whose “turn” it was. Often that meant their last vice president, or a long-serving senator such as Bob Dole or John F. Kerry. This time, the only person making that claim is former vice president Joe Biden, and there’s no doubt that he really does have more experience than anyone.
I have an agenda that differs from that of all the others. While this doesn’t have to mean the most ideologically outward agenda, in practice it often does. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) can claim to be most distinct by being farthest to the left, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has the most comprehensive agenda. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) has a campaign focused on climate change. Some of the more centrist candidates (Biden, Moulton, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) might claim to be distinct by being less liberal, though that is unlikely to work well in a Democratic primary.
I am a uniquely talented individual. This is the implicit claim all candidates make: that they are so brilliant, so persuasive, so insightful, so full of integrity and empathy and pure, glowing goodness that they more than anyone else deserve to hold the highest office in the land.
This can be a problem for someone such as Moulton. Okay, so you’ve been in the House for a few years, a voter might say, and there are some good things on your résumé. But are you really the most extraordinary person in all the land? You could ask the same question of many of the candidates.
I make you feel things no other candidate makes you feel. This is not mutually exclusive with any other rationale, but there are some candidates who bank on making voters feel a certain way — hopeful, inspired, energized, or maybe even some less happy emotions. O’Rourke makes this implicit claim. While it may seem trivial or shallow, it can be quite powerful; Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 in no small part because he made Democrats feel things she didn’t, and Trump captured Republicans’ anger and resentment in a way no other candidate could match.
I am uniquely positioned to win the general election. “Electability” discussions are both maddening and unavoidable, particularly when Democrats are facing an incumbent as odious as Trump. But if we have to have them, we should at least avoid the trap of thinking that “electable” is synonymous with “centrist,” or worse, “Might possibly appeal to white Midwestern men who love Trump.” They’re often filled with ahistorical assertions, which is why those who make them should provide specifics, beyond “I’m ready to take on Trump.”
Partly because of the Kennedy example, we sometimes think about that “Why are you running for President?” question as a gotcha, or at least something more likely to reveal weakness than strength. But candidates really should be asked, because voters deserve to know. And when the candidates answer that they’re running because of this unique moment, they should be pressed: That’s fine, but why you, out of all the people we might choose?
There are some appealing candidates who haven’t answered that question yet. I couldn’t tell you why Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) is running for president, or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), or Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.). You could even argue that the only ones who have a clearly articulated rationale for their candidacies are Sanders, Warren, and Inslee.
Of course, for many of them, the real answer is “I’m running for president because I want to be president and have for a long time.” But since they can’t say that, at least they can give us a persuasive rationale for why they, and only they, ought to occupy that office.