In what is a bookend to those who resign in disgrace by claiming a need to spend more time with their families, almost every potential presidential candidate now says he or she needs to spend time talking with family before deciding whether to wade into an all-consuming process that Democratic consultant David Axelrod has likened to “an MRI of the soul.”
These chats taking place in Cambridge and Cleveland, in New York and Los Angeles, will mark an important period before the burst of announcement activity expected to begin just after New Year’s Day.
“It will ultimately be a family decision,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said recently. “And over the holiday, I will make that decision with my family.”
“It will be a family decision,” former vice president Joe Biden said.
“I’ve got to talk to my family,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said the other day.
She revealed that her husband learned she was considering her first U.S. Senate bid when he heard it on the radio. “I’m not going to repeat that mistake again,” she said at an Axios panel on criminal justice.
Their concerns are real. Biden is the patriarch of a family rocked by tragedy — and concern about his family, then reeling from the death of his eldest son, was a primary reason he didn’t run in 2016. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) spent most of the past two years on the Senate campaign trail, which was particularly hard on his young children. Top aides say an added factor is getting family members on board for what could be relentless attacks from President Trump, who in 2016 showed little hesitancy in disparaging the looks of Heidi Cruz, the wife of competitor Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
But the holiday timing also is a bit convenient. It pushes off any public announcements until the beginning of the first quarter of 2019, giving possible candidates the maximum time to collect money before the first reporting period provides an early measure of strength next spring. It allows them to wrap families and holiday good cheer around a decision filled with raw political calculations.
And besides, who wants to dominate a news cycle when voters are actually talking to their own families?
In many cases, the presidential campaigns are expected to be family affairs.
Harris’s sister, Maya Harris, a former aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, has been heavily involved in planning, making calls to potential staffers and laying groundwork. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s wife, author and columnist Connie Schultz, would play a central role in the Ohio Democrat’s campaign.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the only single candidate in the field, would rely heavily on his mother and brother, as he has in past campaigns. (During a recent trip to Iowa, he also detailed family ties to a mining community there, introducing a 99-year-old great aunt and “50 cousins” he had in the state). The topic will come up during the coming days he’ll spend in Newark and with his mother in Las Vegas.
“During the holidays, I’m going to sit down with family and friends and really try to come to a conclusion and make a decision about whether to run or not for president,” he told a New Hampshire radio station.
If families do have a say, they will have to weigh the bright national spotlight — their personal lives being examined for public consumption. There will be long stretches apart and times when they have to pretend to love states where they would never otherwise spend time. Their children will have to clamber onto big stages in front of total strangers, posing for uncomfortable photos, with the only potential reward being a new puppy (as was the case for the Obama daughters).
Chris Dodd moved his family to Iowa in 2007, in advance of the 2008 contests, creating concern on the part of his 6-year-old daughter that Santa wouldn’t find their house there and, if he did, that their fireplace wasn’t big enough. Even if Santa did find the home, the trial didn’t pay off for the senator from Connecticut: He finished in last place in the Iowa Democratic caucuses and dropped out of the race.
Around Christmas in 2006, Mitt Romney convened a family meeting at his Utah ski chalet, scribbling notes on a legal pad as he went around the room and listened as family members offered pros and cons on whether he should run for president.
“The con would be that you’d be the president — you’d have to be the president,” said his son Josh’s wife, Jen, while holding a baby in her arms. “Emotionally it’d be hard on everybody. But it’d be an amazing experience.”
“Talk about stress,” Josh chimed in. “You’d be bald in about a month.”
“If you don’t win, we’ll still love you,” said his oldest son, Tagg, growing emotional. “The country may think of you as a laughingstock, and we’ll know the truth. And that’s okay. But I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it.”
The made-for-TV moment actually was: It was captured by a documentary filmmaker.
Some have already consulted with their families. “They had a veto over the project,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) recently told ABC News. “And they have all now given it a thumbs-up.”
Only a few seem to be avoiding bringing their holiday time with family into their public presidential deliberations.
“I said I would take a look after the midterms, and that is what I am doing right now,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told reporters this month, never invoking her husband, Bruce Mann. “There is no special timeline for this. Just trying to work through it.”
Biden has seemed openly torn over whether to fulfill a family wish by running for president or honor one by spending more time with his family instead.
“I want to be able to, when my life is finished, be able to say to myself that I kept my commitment to Beau, that I didn’t walk away, that I stayed engaged in all the issues that have animated my life my whole life,” Biden said this month during a book tour event in Burlington, Vt., referring to the years-old request by his late son. “I want to spend as much time as I can with my family. I have five grandchildren who adore me.”
“I literally text or speak to every one of my grandchildren every single solitary day,” he added. “Beginning, middle and end is family.”