Is Beau Biden Democrats' Next Emerging Star?

By Erin McPike, RealClearPolitics - November 9, 2012

Talk of the 2016 presidential election has already begun, and though Democrats like what they see in terms of demographic trends in the electorate, they also have a weakness to consider at this point: The bench of potential contenders for the next election -- aside from Hillary Clinton, who has said she will not run -- is thin, especially in comparison to the GOP’s.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Indiana Gov.-elect Mike Pence all have promising futures. Some of them may run for president in 2016; others may wait.

To contend with that impressive list -- not just in 2016 and beyond, but also to prosecute the party’s case on key issues facing the public -- Democrats need to cultivate a strong field of their own. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has been visible nationally as the head of the Democratic Governors Association and is widely expected to contemplate a presidential bid, but prospects are otherwise diffuse.

One who has begun to emerge is Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of the vice president. In the final months of the 2012 election, he functioned prominently as an Obama surrogate.

“The sky's the limit for him,” said Matt Miller, a former spokesman for both the Justice Department and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Whether it's the next open Senate seat or governor, he has all the talent and has earned the goodwill to run for whatever he wants."

Miller also speculated that Biden would be considered for a Cabinet position in the Obama administration “if it wasn't for his dad being VP.” A major in the Army National Guard, Biden is also an attorney who received his law degree from Syracuse University after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent five years working for the Justice Department, ending that part of his career as a federal prosecutor. He entered private practice for two years before being elected Delaware’s attorney general, a role that has earned him praise for his handling of several high-profile cases.

In national politics, he also shines. Biden took to the spin room after the vice presidential debate in mid-October and defended his father’s demeanor. (Joe Biden’s laughter and expressions of incredulity were criticized by some as excessive and disrespectful; Beau Biden said he liked seeing him smile.) He’s gone before TV cameras frequently in the past few months, offering a vibrant defense of the Obama administration. And he’s given well-received speeches at the past two Democratic conventions.

The vice president’s son was also scheduled to campaign with the second lady throughout North Carolina and Virginia in the final weeks of the presidential race. Both states have a heavy military presence, and the Obama campaign was dispatching him to connect with those audiences in light of his 2008 deployment to Iraq. Many of his appearances were scrapped, however, because of Hurricane Sandy.

One of the cancellations occurred at the very last minute. At the Lynchburg (Va.) City Armory on the Saturday before the storm hit, the vice president opened his remarks by saying that his son had been with him aboard Air Force Two as it was about to take off. But a sudden change of plans was in store. Biden said his son told him: “Dad, the governor has just called up the National Guard. I’m going home.”

Apparently the younger Biden’s activities and abilities have been noticed. In late October, Newt Gingrich appeared on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” and offered him a back-handed compliment.

"It's amazing to me how Beau Biden is so much more mature than his father," the former House speaker said. "He gives much better interviews, and seems much more in control of himself."

Republicans generally respect the 43-year-old attorney general, and GOP strategists were relieved when he announced in late 2009 that he would not seek his father’s former Senate seat in 2010.

But that one decision has operatives in both parties saying that the emerging politician could face some degree of backlash for not trying to save a Senate seat for Democrats in what was shaping up to be a tough cycle for the party. Several Democrats with senior positions in the party’s leadership at that time declined to comment for this story, apparently because they remain bitter about his decision.

Ultimately, Democrats prevailed with Chris Coons, but only after Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell upset moderate Republican congressman (and well-liked former governor) Mike Castle. O’Donnell’s candidacy was viewed as a near-calamity by the GOP, and Coons won the general election easily. Had Republicans flipped the seat, it could have been much more damaging to the attorney general.

(Operatives on both sides of the aisle also openly speculate about Beau Biden’s health -- he had a mild stroke in the spring of 2010 -- and how it could affect his national prospects. Of course, his father suffered two brain aneurysms but achieved a job just a heartbeat away from the presidency without much concern.)

In order to follow his father in climbing the ranks, however, Beau Biden likely needs a larger platform, and one won’t be in the offing anytime soon. Coons won a special election to serve the remaining four years of Joe Biden’s term, and he is unlikely to step aside in 2014. Tom Carper, the state’s senior senator and also a Democrat, was just re-elected this week.

Thus, it’s becoming more likely that Biden will pursue the governor’s chair instead. Though he’s told friends he’ll run for one of the two Senate openings in the years to come, he is said to have become somewhat disenchanted with the tone of the upper chamber in recent years.

What’s more, as the younger Biden begins to blaze his own political path, he may want to distinguish himself from his father. (One distinction he’s already drawn is military service, which Joe Biden never had.) In creating his own profile, the executive route may prove more appealing than the legislative one.

He ran for attorney general in 2006 and won a second term in 2010. The office is not term-limited, so he could run again in 2014 as a launch pad for the 2016 gubernatorial race. (Delaware Gov. Jack Markell secured a second term this week with 69.1 percent of the vote, but he will be ineligible to seek re-election again in the term-limited job.) 

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