Rules for 2020 presidential candidates

For better or for worse, the 2020 presidential campaign has already begun. A number of Democratic candidates, including Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro and John Delaney, have announced their candidacies. On the Republican side, Donald Trump never stopped running when the 2016 election ended, and he officially filed to run in 2020 on the day he was inaugurated in 2017. He could also face a primary challenge — for instance from John Kasich — although, at this point, that is speculative.

It’s not too early to think about how the 2020 campaign can be a better one than the one we had in 2016. Toward that end, it would be useful to form a basic threshold of decency and legitimacy for anyone running in 2020 and to ask all candidates, including President Trump, to adhere to a fundamental set of rules and principles.


These would include:

  • Candidates will reject any and all assistance from foreign countries and foreign nationals, or Americans working on behalf of foreign countries or foreign entities.
  • Any discussions with foreign nationals or agents of foreign countries will be made public; Americans are to know whether any candidate is talking to foreign entities about election help during the campaign.
  • All candidates will disclose their tax returns.
  • All candidates will pledge, if elected, to divest themselves from business interests while in office. If elected (or, in Mr. Trump’s case, if re-elected), no president will profit from the office.
  • If elected, no candidate will name close relatives to a position in the administration or elsewhere in government.
  • Each candidate will treat his or her opponents as legitimate rivals, not enemies. John McCain’s description of his campaign against Barack Obama in 2008 can serve as a model here.
  • Each candidate pledges to support the American system of constitutional democracy, including the principle that no one is above the law.
  • Each candidate pledges to respect the independence and legitimacy of the Justice Department, federal courts and federal law enforcement.
  • No candidate will attempt to use members of the U.S. military as campaign props.
  • If elected, no candidate will issue pardons for friends, cronies, relatives or themselves. All potential pardons will move through the regular process in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Department of Justice.
  • Each candidate pledges to accept the election results — win or lose — absent any independent, objective finding of irregularity or impropriety.
  • Each candidate rejects the legitimacy of political violence, including violence by their supporters or by other politicians. No candidate will condone or encourage political violence in any way.
  • Each candidate supports the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment and freedom of the press. No candidate will demonize the press as an “enemy of the people.” Each candidate pledges to ensure to the best of their abilities that journalists will feel safe covering their campaigns.
  • If elected, no candidate will use or threaten to use emergency power as a way to make an end run around Congress. National emergencies will only be declared when a real emergency exists, not as a political tool or tactic.

These basic principles provide a baseline for anyone seeking the office of the presidency. Each candidate should be asked whether they agree with what, in normal times, would be uncontroversial assertions. Journalists ought to ask candidates who do not sign on why they are unwilling to do so. If any Democrats do not sign on, other Democrats (whether running for president or not) should ask why — and the same ought to be true for Republicans.


Not one of these principles is a partisan matter — or, at least, none should be. These are fundamental descriptions of what Americans deserve to expect from presidential candidates. It is up to all of us, as voters, to require this basic level of integrity from the candidates, to consider why any candidate would not be able to follow these principles and to hold each candidate accountable.

Chris Edelson ( is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He is the author of “Emergency Presidential Power: from the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror.”