POLITICS
12/18/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

So You Want To Run For President? Congratulations! Here Are The Stages Of Your Quest

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

As you may have heard, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) announced that he was going to “actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States.” This may cause you to wonder, “What does actively exploring a presidential run mean?” Is it like actively exploring your body? Or taking a semester off to, I don’t know, get a Eurorail pass and visit other presidential runs? And isn’t “active exploration” redundant? I mean, you can’t “passively explore” something, can you? Like, you’re just living your life until one day you realize that you’ve somehow thoroughly vetted the possibility that you should run for president?

These are all excellent questions, probably. But the key thing to focus on here is that Jeb Bush has proceeded from one stage of running for president, which we’ll call “not actively exploring a presidential run,” to a new stage, “actively exploring a presidential run.” What you want to get a sense of are things like: What is the level of Bush’s presidential ambitions? What trajectory is he on as a potential candidate? And, of course, how soon can we expect him to get to the next stage of this decision-making process, which is “resigning yourself to spending the winter in New Hampshire, and ordering the requisite outerwear online"?

In order to get a fix on where Jeb Bush is, on this long and winding road to the White House, we have to enumerate the many stages of running for president. We are going to be ridiculously exhaustive in this enumeration, because running for president is a ridiculous and exhausting thing to do. Seriously, in America it’s probably easier to just become one of the billionaires who then buy their own presidents. Why not just do that? You get to own yachts and stuff!

The Stages Of Running For President Of The United States Of America

Actually Not Running For President: You have no interest in running for president. You don’t need to do anything. If anyone asks, “Hey, are you thinking of running for president?” you say, “Nah” and go about your day. Naturally, this stage is considerably easier if you’re the sort of person who would not, in a million billion years, be thought of as presidential material. Then you don’t even get asked the question in the first place. If you are in the U.S. Senate, this stings a little!

Being Encouraged To Run For President: Some people out there in the world really like you, and they’ve formed a little posse, and maybe created a website or something, called “Draft [Your Name Here] Dot Tumblr Dot Com,” and maybe Politico has written a thing about that effort and now it’s well beyond your control. Obviously, this year we’ve seen the emergence of “Ready For Hillary,” but it hardly stops there: Ben Carson has the “National Draft Ben Carson For President Committee” behind him, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has “Ready For Warren itching for her to jump into the race. Also: Mitt Romney’s “backers” seem to have a near-galactic gluttony for punishment.

Not every “Draft A Candidate” campaign is realistic or capable of capturing the popular imagination -- just ask the person who started the “@Sebelius2016” Twitter account, in a truly cockeyed bout of optimism. But once your draft movement becomes a thing, you naturally have to proceed to some new stage of running for president or become much more convincing in your attempts to clarify that you don’t want to be a candidate. Which leads us to ...

Aggressively Not Running For President: You had no interest at all in running a presidential campaign, but the people who keep asking you if you’re considering it just don’t want to take a “no” for an answer. So now you’ve got to run a “campaign for not running a campaign for president.” This is a lot like running for president, only it’s more tedious, and most of the time it seems like you are surrounded by morons.

This is the stage of running for president where Elizabeth Warren currently finds herself. (Or does she?) This week, after NPR became the 34,763rd news organization to ask three separate times if she had presidential ambitions, Warren replied, “I am not running for president. You want me to put an exclamation point at the end?” This was not nearly enough to convince anyone that she is not running for president. Sometimes you have to stand in front of reporters for hours, repeatedly telling them that you aren’t running for president, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) did in October 2011.

elizabeth warren

“Seriously Considering” A Presidential Run: At this stage, you are someone who cannot legitimately answer “no” to the question of whether you are running, because hey, maybe that’s something you’d like to do. You could be someone who’s strongly favored to win the eventual nomination, like Hillary Clinton. You could be someone who lost the last time out and thinks things might be different this time, like Rick Perry. You might be any number of candidates who everyone hoped would run the last time, like Chris Christie. Or you might genuinely have nothing better to do with your life, like George Pataki.

RELATED: You Are Donald Trump: You have cultivated this schtick in which you always say that you’re considering making a presidential run, but you are never going to do so. Maybe because for all your boastfulness, you understand that deep down, you're too thin-skinned to put yourself out there like that. On the other hand, one can’t rule out the possibility that you're a long-running, Andy Kaufman-esque performance art piece designed to identify the most hilariously credulous political reporters in America. Either way, at the intersection of "You" and "Running For President" is a pile of hot garbage.

donald trump

Passively Exploring A Presidential Run: It’s only been done once in history, but it was executed to near perfection:

Pawlenty went from passively exploring a presidential run to passively participating in campaign events. He even made some passive appearances at a couple of presidential debates. Eventually, however, he did get around to making an active choice about the presidential race (he dropped out).

Actively Exploring A Presidential Run: So this is the stage Jeb Bush officially reached this week. You should take this to mean that Bush understands people are interested in his possible candidacy. He is now on a sort of vision quest. He could decide that he sees a future in which he runs for president, in which case further “explorations” will primarily focus on answering questions like, “Who will fund this campaign?” and “What elite support am I likely to garner?”

But bear in mind that Bush’s “active explorations” might not mean any of this. As Republican strategist Liz Mair recently wrote in The Federalist:

There is also plenty of evidence to back up the conclusion that Jeb wants to look like he might run for president and scare the crap out of the entire rest of the prospective field and make them listen to what he’s got to say and heed his advice and instincts on things like education and immigration and the importance of executive leadership. However, looking like you’re running is not the same as running, and people close to Jeb know it. Jebites who would -- if Jeb were seriously considering running -- be staying away from other candidates like the plague are engaging in a lot of candidate dating. In fact, some of them have even already put a proverbial ring on it.

jeb bush

Significantly, however, there is talk about forming a presidential exploratory committee.

Thus, at some point Bush may find himself arriving at the next step, which is ...

“Laying The Groundwork” For A Presidential Run: At some point, you have to stop thinking about running for president and you have to either test your viability as a candidate, or create an official campaign. People who arrive at this step are said to be “laying the groundwork,” because it’s amusing to imagine a bunch of affluent elites digging post-holes and laying concrete and stuff.

But the key word here is “concrete.” At this stage, you’re not simply pursuing a thought exercise, you’re doing tangible things to advance a presidential campaign. At the late stage, “groundwork laying” involves some of the more boring but necessary tasks -- forming a presidential exploratory committee, getting your ducks in a row with the FEC, building your campaign staff and infrastructure, and winning the support of top donors and party elites.

But there are lots of things you can do even prior to this that constitute “groundwork.” For instance, are you going on a “listening tour”? That probably means you are about to run for president, because who goes on a “listening tour” without hearing what they want to hear? It should be called a “hearing tour.” Actually, if you want to save a lot of money, the “listening tour” can simply be done with a Ouija board and a bottle of scotch.

Other examples of groundwork-laying include: publishing a gauzy biography that only campaign reporters will read, producing a 14-minute video at the local cable-access studio, suddenly deciding that the theory of evolution looks fishy, and traveling to Iowa or New Hampshire for basically any reason whatsoever.

Announcing That A Future Announcement About Running For President Will Be Happening: This is one of the new stages of running for president that former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich invented in an effort to inject even more pointless tedium and high weirdness into the process of running for president.

newt gingrich

Announcing That You Are Running For President: Your groundwork is laid and your infrastructure is built and now it’s time to stand behind a lectern and tell the world about your intention to seek the highest office in the land. Reporters will confuse the lectern for a podium.

Then, Actually Just Running For President: It’s all happening! Look at you, you’re a real live presidential candidate.

Now things are about to change. Any illusion you had that the process of running for president was going to be a glamorous, high-minded exercise in which you get to experience the gorgeous tableaux-vivant that is American life while conducting a campaign of big ideas will be shattered about a week into the effort. That’s when you realize this is about traversing the country in a wretched bus, showing up to county fairs to eat whatever foodstuff they’ve impaled on a stick, constantly intruding on people in diners who just want to eat lunch in the half-hour they have, and periodically being called away to participate in what seem like hundreds of debates, each more ludicrous -- but potentially game-changing! -- than the last.

You’re also going to start to notice the way the media covers you. Back when you were a lovable mensch with an outside shot at the White House, the press wanted to be your buddy. This is only because they never, not even for a minute, imagined that you might actually end up winning this thing. If that changes -- if you suddenly emerge as a contender -- that’s going to change, and you won’t like it.

You also won’t like the fact that back when you were just thinking about running for president, reporters and pundits seemed to want to engage with your ideas and your biography. You thought big, and reporters treated your ideas as things worthy of contemplation. When you were quoted, you were quoted in paragraphs. You maybe even started to believe that this campaign was going to be about substance.

Now that you’re in the thick of it, however, it’s like the average IQ of every reporter just dropped by 40 points. Now everyone is looking for that moment you fumble a pronoun or mess up a verb tense, so they can rush out a story about how you gaffed it up. You’ll show up for a debate and discover that the whole thing is being presented as if it’s some reality show. If you struggle, every cable news panelist is going to inundate you with a hot idea for turning things around.

This is basically hell.

for president

RELATED: Running For President In The Hopes You Will Get Something Else: Blessed are they who, in the midst of running for president, aren’t really running for president. And there’s always a couple of these guys in either party -- not just “long shots,” but the “really, come on now, what are you doing heres” that are plainly only in this for the side benefits of a presidential campaign.

And they are pretty sweet benefits! Your presidential run might net you a job as a Fox contributor, or some other place in the media firmament. Maybe you secure a perch on a corporate board or a foundation. Whatever your speaking fee was prior to running for president, it’s going to get a nice goose.

Really, when you think about it, those who are fortunate enough to be able to mount a presidential campaign but lucky enough to not end up responsible for running this screwed-up country are the most #blessed people on any campaign trail.

Running For President But Then Going On A Long Vacation For Some Reason: This is another stage of running for president that Newt Gingrich invented in 2011, when he inexplicably left the campaign trail to go on a Mediterranean cruise, during which time his campaign staff resigned en masse.

Announcing That You’re Not Dropping Out Of The Race Despite The Fact You’ve Got No Shot At The Nomination: At some point, it’s going to become clear that you’re not going to end up as your party’s nominee. That moment is now, but for some reason, you don’t see it. Why don’t you see it, man? It is basically obvious to everyone.

You’re coming off your most recent terrible finish in a primary, and the road ahead is only looking bleaker, so you’ve called a press conference and every reporter assigned to your campaign (now dreaming about getting assigned to a better campaign) is there, and the moment is freighted with wistful solemnity. It looks like this is it. Only -- no! The reason you’ve called this press conference is to announce you are sticking it out! All the assembled reporters roll their eyes and grit their teeth, knowing that they now have to file a non-story: “Area candidate doesn’t get the hint.”

This might also be the stage where you start telling people that you’re going to “pour all your efforts into South Carolina,” or “build a firewall in Florida,” or “get the game changed in Guam.” Will this work? Check out the next stage:

Announcing That You Are Dropping Out Of The Race Because You’ve Got No Shot At The Nomination: Yeah, your zany plan to alter reality didn’t pan out. Time to bow out gracefully; you had a good run.

RELATED: Dropping Out Of The Race But Calling It A Campaign 'Suspension': Once more, we have a stage of running for president that Newt Gingrich came up with because he just can’t not be weird. As he told reporters in May of 2012: “Today I am suspending the campaign, but suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship." Whatever, Newt!

RELATED: Running For A Vice Presidential Nod: Maybe this whole time that you were running for president, what you actually revealed was you’d make an excellent vice presidential candidate. It’s possible, so it pays to be nice to the people who vanquished you, because that’s one way of getting onto a vice presidential shortlist. (Note to Republicans in the 2016 cycle: This is probably not an option you should count on, because “running for vice president” is something that Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is already doing, and he is really good at it.)

Actually Becoming President: Well, look at you! Congratulations! After a long hard slog through every battleground state in the country, every debate, every trumped-up controversy, every moment of despair, you have made it to the White House. Now you have about eight weeks to actually do stuff before you have to start running for president again and life becomes even more hellish and ridiculous than you ever thought possible. It will all be worth it after you leave office and your regular access to billionaires whose desires you enabled, and they return those favors with plum appointments that require neither work nor merit for the rest of your life.

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