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Winning means coming in first

In my more than half a century of hanging around the clubhouses and campaign halls of American politics, I have never once met a candidate with the first name or family name “Expected.” Yet the enduring one-size-fits-all excuse/explanation for every presidential candidate who finishes in the back of the pack when the most recent primary results are posted remains identical: “We did better than expected!”

While it’s still early in the 2020 presidential marathon, let’s agree on one simple standard for all the contests to come: Winning is coming in first. It may be old-fashioned, and even simplistic, but the truth is that in every primary or caucus, someone wins, and all the other someones lose. The someone who wins is the individual who receives more votes than any of her or his competitors.

This standard will be important as we look to the first Tuesday in March — after the Big Four of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — when on one day, 14 states will hold their primaries and make their presidential preferences known: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia. Third-place finishers, you can be sure, will try to claim a moral victory, and runners-up will try to take a victory lap, but we must insist that winning is coming in first.

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution directs that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” After John Adams, presidents submitted their State of the Union message to Congress in writing. Woodrow Wilson, just over a century ago, was the first since Adams to deliver his message in person, and all his successors have followed suit.

Truth be told, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave us the only memorable State of the Union, on Jan. 6, 1941 — just 11 months before Pearl Harbor — when he advocated for the lend-lease program to go to Great Britain’s aid with war equipment so Germany could resist Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and for seeking a future world based upon the “four essential human freedoms.” FDR outlined them: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of religion everywhere in the world; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

In all likelihood, the world will little note nor long remember President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union, perhaps except for this Trump statement: “I have also made an ironclad pledge to American families: We will always protect patients with preexisting conditions.” The Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, required insurers in the individual health insurance market to cover Americans with preexisting conditions and forbid those insurers from charging higher premiums to anyone with a preexisting condition.

Listening to this particular presidential prevarication, I was reminded of the wisdom of the late Don Fraser, the Minnesota congressman and mayor of Minneapolis, who observed, “Under current law, it is a crime for a private citizen to lie to a government official, but not for the government official to lie to the people.”

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Mark Shields is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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