Speculation is mounting that Vice President Joe Biden might join the presidential race. He should.
It would shake things up and inject some character into liberalism. In an ideal world, the Democrats would choose Biden and the Republicans would pick Donald Trump. And then we could have the loudest presidential debates in history.
Biden recently told ABC News that there is “a chance” that he might run and that, in his opinion, the race is “wide open.”
The former statement seems more probable than the latter. Part of the reason Biden has been quiet about his ambitions is that he likes to take counsel from his family — and the family was recently struck by tragedy when he lost his son, Beau, to brain cancer. Nevertheless, Beau was reportedly in favor of his father running, and his other son is believed to agree.
The vice president might not regard this encouragement as enough reason to jump in, however. He may be emotionally exhausted; he may regard his two previous defeats as a sign that he doesn’t have the right stuff. Or, as RealClearPolitics points out, he might look at Hillary Clinton’s 50-point lead in the polls and judge that it’s too high a mountain to climb.
But Biden does have some advantages against Clinton that the polls disguise. Two of them are bipartisan appeal and authenticity.
To take the first, Biden has developed a reputation within Washington for being able to sit down with people and get things done. He played a key part in budget negotiations that helped prevent the country falling off the fiscal cliff, while his influence over Afghanistan policy is said to be significant.
True, there are still signs of the old, gaffe-prone Biden: Recall him telling a largely African-American audience in 2012 that Mitt Romney wanted to enslave them. But errors of judgment do not seem to betray meanness. In a fan letter written for the Financial Times, Edward Luce rightly reminds us that Biden persuaded ultraconservatives like Strom Thurmond to support his legislation back when he was in the Senate. One of Biden’s strongest negotiating tools is the feeling that he is a good old-fashioned patriot with the country’s interests at stake.
In addition to that, Biden’s liberalism is of an authentic variety that Clinton struggles to articulate. Of course, her record of fighting for women and children is exemplary and her treatment by parts of the right-wing media has been appalling. But there is still a reason why Bernie Sanders is suddenly just 8 points behind her in New Hampshire, according to a new CNN/WMUR poll.
If you’re a liberal who isn’t part of the Hillary cult then it’s very hard to discern why she’s running for the presidency except for the sake of becoming president. Hillary Clinton stands for Hillary Clinton. If you love her, that’s reason enough to vote for her. If you’re ambivalent, then it’s not enough.
To policy-oriented liberals, the Biden vs. Clinton difference can be summed up in two words: same-sex marriage. Until very recently, Clinton was still dancing around her earlier opposition to same-sex marriage and her growing awareness that a lot of people now supported it. Her full conversion to the cause largely happened around the time that the Supreme Court was considering legalization. It smacked of opportunism.
By contrast, it was Joe Biden’s announcement in a 2012 interview that he thought the time for same-sex marriage had come that pushed President Obama into making a similar statement. According to an account in Jo Becker’s book “Forcing the Spring,” not only was the White House taken by surprise by that unscripted TV encounter, but Biden was accused of “downright disloyalty.”
There are few moments in history when policy is genuinely shaped by one individual’s decision to “go rogue.” It’s highly doubtful that Biden personally made the legalization of same-sex marriage inevitable, but he gave it a nudge. And voters with long memories will remember a blunt man responding to a tough question with honesty — and at great personal risk.
In many ways, there’s something very old-fashioned about the thought of a Biden candidacy. He’s been around for decades, he’s white, male, Catholic and of a fairly orthodox liberal hue. But every contest needs a certain dynamic to bring it to life, a dynamic based upon opposing narratives.
Clinton will run against her reputation and try to build a whole new one in its place. Joe will just be Joe. And that battle between artifice and integrity could be the story some Democrats have been waiting for.
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