Running for president when nothing and everything is presidential

Some Democrats seem to want to fight Trump’s fire with fire, outrage with outrage, vulgarity with vulgarity. Beto O’Rourke courts the cameras by barking out the F-word—and selling T-shirts displaying his vulgar quote. At the August debate, Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard grasped for a boost in the polls by launching Trump-like demagogic attacks on the front-runners. Trump showed America that political experience doesn’t count for Republicans; Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson are trying to convince us that it doesn’t matter for Democrats either—or is even a liability.

Others, though, are betting that the public wants a return to normalcy, including a restoration of civility in our public life and dignity in the Oval Office. Joe Biden’s evocations of working with “Barack,” Elizabeth Warren’s reminders that presidents are supposed to know policy, and Kamala Harris’s dignified defense of her record convey that we should again have a president who stirs our nobler instincts. One who isn’t unpresidential.

Presidents are, by definition, presidential. Clearly, however, Trump has scrambled, at least for now, what that word means. In the past few weeks alone, he’s called the Federal Reserve Board governors “boneheads,” cashiered his third national security adviser in as many years (with a tweet), and doctored a weather map on national TV. From the start of his campaign in 2015, it was evident that Trump would struggle to meet most traditional definitions of presidential behavior. As a candidate, he made fun of the idea that he couldn’t do so, although in the process he refuted his own point. “Presidential is easy,” he insisted at a Connecticut campaign rally in 2016, striding formally around the podium and affecting a stiff one. “Ladies and gentlemen of Waterbury, it’s a great honor to be with you this morning.” But he looked like a clown.