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Opinion

Editorial: On Presidents Day, let’s consider what we should be looking for in our 2020 candidates

Kirsten Gillibrand
Potential Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is interviewed by a reporter in Manchester, N.H., in early February.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

If today is Presidents Day, a year and nine months out from a presidential election, then the campaign must already be underway. And it is.

More than 500 people have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run in 2020. Nearly a dozen have already formally announced. President Trump, who famously submitted papers to run for reelection the day he was inaugurated, is expected to run again but has yet to stand in the snow somewhere and make it official. Others are very publicly thinking about it, such as former Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Some are rumored to be on the verge of announcing — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, for instance. Some, like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have already finished publicly thinking about it and have decided not to run. On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee announced there would be 12 Democratic presidential primary debates. The first one is in June — just four months away.

Gone are the days when a campaign was a marathon. Now it’s an ultramarathon.

Only a fraction of those who have filed papers to run will actually make it to a candidates debate or even a humble coffee klatch in Iowa. And whoever wins the White House has scant chance of making it onto any retooled version of Mt. Rushmore. Not that it is likely to need much retooling, unless a natural disaster decimates the Black Hills of South Dakota. A just-released survey from Siena College shows that all four presidents immortalized in granite — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — remain in the top five most highly esteemed by historians. (The fifth is Franklin Roosevelt.) Not that they didn’t have significant failings. Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders. Jefferson, who slept with his slave Sally Hemings, would not have survived the #MeToo era.

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This Presidents Day, the overwhelming majority of candidates officially running for president are people of color or women or both.

Frankly, the odds are long that any of the 2020 challengers will unseat the incumbent president, even one whose negatives are as high as Trump’s. Few sitting presidents have lost their bids for reelection. (George H.W. Bush was an exception.) Only five presidents have been denied renomination by their party.

Still, this year could, conceivably, be different. Not only is the sitting president unusually unpopular, but political verities that we’ve come to count on through the years also seem less certain than usual.

So what should America be looking for in a candidate? The scholars who put together the Siena College survey rated the presidents on numerous qualities — including imagination, integrity, intelligence, willingness to take risks, even luck. Those qualities would be a good start. We’d certainly be happy to see candidates as courageous as Lincoln and as honorable as Washington.

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What else? Our current president reminds us through his shortcomings of the need for honesty in public discourse. And a measure of civility. Trump didn’t invent the nasty campaign. Starting in the 1800s, candidates and their surrogates have accused opponents of adultery, pimping, drunkenness, and encouraging murder. But the 2016 race, with its tabloid tone, its childish nicknames, its detours into issues like penis size and menstrual blood, and its constant chorus of “lock her up,” was uninspiring, to say the least. Candidates ought to have disagreements, even battles, over issues, and they’re entitled to fight them out. But it would be nice to keep those disagreements substantive.

One thing that is extraordinary about the campaign shaping up is the unprecedented number of women who have announced — six at last count: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and the self-help and spirituality book author Marianne Williamson. Also running are Sen. Cory Booker, who is black; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is Latino; and former tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is Asian American. So, consider that on this Presidents Day, the overwhelming majority of candidates officially running for president are people of color or women or, like Harris, both. How stunning is that? Of course, that balance will change in a twinkling as an array of white male candidates, some poised to be front-runners, enter the race in the weeks ahead. But the historic cultural and ethnic widening of the playing field was hard-won and worth celebrating on Presidents Day.

These are trying times for democracy, with great challenges facing America’s democratic institutions. But the nation has proved resilient in the past, through wars, scandals, depressions and, yes, bad presidents. We believe the United States will weather the current storm as well. If the men and women who hope to be elected president of the United States in 2020 would start today trying to prove they are worthy, that wouldn’t be a bad way to spend the next 623 days until election day.

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