If Hillary Falters, Why Not Joe?
Ten years ago, I wrote an article making the case for Hillary Clinton in 2008. The former first lady, then a senator from New York, was popular with Democrats and boasted near-total national name identification. She’d proven her fundraising prowess, was improving her résumé, and had ambition to burn. “Why Not Hillary?” my essay was titled.
It didn’t happen for Clinton in that election cycle. She ran up against a historical juggernaut in the person of Barack Obama, who’d been in the Senate only a few months when I assessed Hillary’s chances. In a long primary season they essentially split their party’s votes, but Obama narrowly edged her out in delegates, mainly with superior organizational skills.
When it came to dividing the spoils, Clinton seemed to get short shrift again. Although she would become Obama’s first secretary of state, Joe Biden—a distant also-ran in the Democratic primaries—was tapped as Obama’s running mate. But Biden seems to have been informed by his boss that this was as far as he was going in politics. Clinton was told no such thing, not that she would have accepted such a restriction anyway, and she’s running again.
For those who care about good government, this is problematic. Eight years ago, Bill and Hillary Clinton hadn’t yet perfected the sophisticated money-making operation that has Republicans salivating and Democrats fretting. The details are only now coming to light, but the scheme seems to work like this: huge corporations and wealthy individuals—and foreign governments—donated millions to the Clintons’ foundation, while also paying Bill huge speaking fees, and then turned around and lobbied the administration in which Hillary was a high-ranking official for various favorable decisions that will generate great profits. The projects we’re talking about range from transnational oil pipelines to uranium mines.
Democratic Party professionals are understandably worried about the atmospherics. On Thursday, I had lunch with three former White House officials, all Democrats, who were discussing possible alternatives. “Hillary’s campaign is going to implode,” one of them said. The question was who could pick up the pieces. None of my lunch companions gave any love to the three Democrats who have expressed interest in running against Clinton. (If you’re keeping score, that’s former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. James Webb, and former Socialist Bernie Sanders, currently representing Vermont in the Senate.)
Three other names arose, however: California Gov. Jerry Brown, former vice president Al Gore, and 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry—the man who replaced Hillary Clinton at the State Department. I added a fourth: Joe Biden.
Why not Joe?
For the pros and cons, let’s start with the positive: On paper, he may be the most qualified presidential candidate in America: two terms as vice president, three decades in the U.S. Senate, including chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Foreign Relations Committee. He’s run for president twice before. He’s been scandal-free in all that time, save for a 1987 plagiarism beef that looks mild by today’s standards. He has working-class roots, connects with blue-collar “Reagan Democrats,” and is respected by military families. He has easy sense of humor.
Unlike other Democrats I could name, he hasn’t amassed a personal fortune. He’s a public servant committed to public service. As vice president, he’s been exceedingly valuable to Obama, on politics and policy. I’ll cite two examples.
Remember when the intransigence of House Republicans and the petulance of Senate Democrats—and the president himself—threatened to take the country over a “fiscal cliff” in 2013? Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called Biden, his former and longtime colleague, with a simple question: “Does anyone down there know how to make a deal?”
There was, and once Obama tasked his vice president with getting it done, a deal happened. It’s called governing, and Joe Biden knows how to do it.
He’s savvy on politics, too. The prevailing wisdom holds that Bill Clinton rescued the Democrats’ 2012 humdrum nominating convention in Charlotte with a stemwinder that pumped up the delegates. But Biden is the one who may have actually saved that convention four months earlier when he blurted out his support for same-sex marriage on “Meet the Press.”
“I think you may have just gotten in front of the president on gay marriage,” his communications director told him afterward. This was true, but after Education Secretary Arne Duncan did the same thing on “Morning Joe,” the president realized that the Democrats’ days of having it both ways on gay marriage were over.
White House officials didn’t know it then but Biden may have saved the convention. Delegates would have raised hell over this issue in Charlotte. Some would have walked out over it. That would have been a bigger news story than Bill Clinton’s speech.
So those are the pros. There are cons—Joe is only human—and I won’t gloss over them. For one, he will be nearly 74 on Election Day 2016. Also, he’s famous for his blooper reel. That sense of humor I mentioned? Sometimes it’s inadvertent. Everybody, it seems, has their favorite Biden gaffe. Two of my favorites came on the 2012 campaign trail. “My mother believed and my father believed that if I wanted to be president of the United States, I could be, I could be vice president!”
Three weeks earlier, he told a college audience, “I promise you, the president has a big stick. I promise you.”
At a White House conference on violent extremism earlier this year, Biden said he has “great relationships” with Somalis because “there is a large, very identifiable Somali community” in Wilmington, Delaware and “an awful lot [of them are] driving cabs and are friends of mine. For real. I’m not being solicitous. I’m serious.”
This might have been problematic even if Biden’s premise were true; actually there are hardly any Somalis in Wilmington, let alone a huge squadron of taxi drivers. But nobody is perfect, and after eight years of Obama’s cautious and detached diffidence—and after only two months of fresh Clinton scandals—maybe Biden’s genuine, if flawed, “Uncle Joe” persona is what the American people want.
“Joe Biden is what you see,” says Republican former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Yes, he’s prone to gaffes publicly, and he'll admit that. He’s very self-deprecating like that. And I'm certainly not one who agrees with Joe Biden on all things … but from a human and relationship standpoint, the guy’s awesome.”