Will Biden Run? Tough Issues Cloud Decision
“What would Beau do?” Vice President Biden said this weekend during a surprise drop-by at an annual Delaware political event in Lewes.
During an emotional and impromptu speech Saturday before a crowd of 300 people at the Sussex County Democrats’ Jamboree, Biden said he arrived to thank supporters who helped his family after Joseph R. Biden III, his son and the state’s attorney general, died in May from cancer.
“It just meant so much,” he said, standing atop a picnic table while donning dark aviator sunglasses in the shade. “Beau’s the finest man I ever met in my life.”
The vice president hailed supporters who gave him a political leg up when he was in his 20s and similarly assisted his son, who died at age 46.
“All you can hope to do in life is leave something behind,” Biden said, thanking by name some of the friends and fellow politicians he recognized in the crowd.
“I’m still here. I’m still Joe. I haven’t gone away,” he said, his voice trailing off and his gaze drifting downward. After a collecting his thoughts again, he added, “It’s a long story.”
As Biden weighs another presidential race at age 72, he has made no secret of feeling conflicted. What is right for a grieving family? What did Beau want before dying? Are Biden’s contributions still ahead of him, or anchored in his past? Can a stricken politician (and a Washington insider) lead an angst-afflicted nation? Should Democratic primary voters get the chance to decide?
“If I were to announce to run, I have to be able to commit to all of you that I would be able to give it my whole heart and my whole soul, and right now, both are pretty well banged up,” the vice president told national Democrats during a conference call last week aimed at building congressional support for a nuclear deal with Iran. Biden was candid that he and his family weren’t sure they had the “emotional fuel” for such a race, CNN reported.
Having experienced unsuccessful presidential bids in 1988 and 2008, and having worked alongside Obama to win the White House twice, Biden knows what he would be in for. He knows the states where he would have to organize; the money required; the bundlers he’d need to woo; the contrasts he’d have to make against Hillary Clinton; and the worries that his bid might cleave his party or damage his generally favorable standing with the public as an authentic advocate for the little guy.
Longtime aides and friends insist they cannot predict what Biden will do. But the vice president and his family have spoken in the past about lessons learned while competing for the highest office. Some of those takeaways seem relevant to the decision at hand.
Does Biden want to be president, and does he see himself in the job? The answer, in theory, is yes. After his first 11 years in the Senate, Biden recalled he was ambitious for the promotion but no match for the Oval Office job. “By my own standards, I wasn’t ready to be president,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep.” A few years later as he eyed the 1988 field, he was still uncertain, as was his wife, Jill. He finally jumped in because other competitors were getting in. He was then, as now, conflicted, but for different reasons.
“The presidential race, and being president, I could not see. But I figured I was on my own time schedule,” he recalled. He told his closest aide, Ted Kaufman (subsequently a senator from Delaware), “We’re just trying this out.” Biden later was accused of plagiarizing another politician’s rhetoric without attribution, sparking a media firestorm that undermined his credibility and deeply bruised his family’s defenses. Michael Dukakis became the nominee.
By 2004, Biden had reclaimed his reputation and believed he was ready. He said he could envision himself governing the nation, and President George W. Bush’s re-election victory was the catalyst that drove him to want to see a Democrat in the White House. But it was his family that gave him the all-important green light during a family meeting at the end of that year. “We think you can unite the country,” his wife told him, seated alongside Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, sons Beau and Hunter, daughter Ashley, and senior aides. For the remainder of Bush’s second term, Biden prepared to showcase his foreign policy experience in the 2008 contest. But Obama, who had opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, won the Iowa caucuses, and after a poor showing, Biden dropped out. By the time Obama selected Biden to be his running mate that summer, the question the Illinois senator asked his veteran colleague was, “Will this job be too small for you?”
Biden replied, “The good news is, I’m sixty-five and you’re not going to have to worry about my positioning myself to be president. The bad news is, I want to be part of the deal,” Newsweek reported in November 2008.
Biden was sorely disappointed about losing two presidential campaigns, but his sister, one of his closest political advisers, said there was a difference between seeking the presidency and being defined by it. “His happiness never rested on being president,” Owens told Biden biographer Jules Witcover during an interview in September 2009.
Beau, during an interview for Witcover’s book, said his father sought the presidency the second time armed with ideas to govern, and a sense of enjoyment while seeking voters’ support. “I saw a candidate say exactly where he wanted to lead this country,” the younger Biden recalled. “He didn’t run for president in 2008 to see his name on the ballot.”
Two years ago, shortly before his son became ill during a family vacation and was admitted to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, the vice president echoed his sister’s assessment about happiness, but with a twist.
"I can die a happy man never having been president of the United States of America," he said in 2013 as part of a lengthy GQ profile. "But it doesn't mean I won't run."
Would Biden have a message for 2016, or would it be more of a personal mission? In 2008, the Delaware senator campaigned against Bush’s war record, and looked back on his own defeat as something of a communications problem: “I wasn’t yet entirely sure how to get my message through the media din that surrounds voters.”
If he wants to run in 2016, Biden would be lashed to Obama’s agenda, if not to his style of governing, and tasked to identify a message that complements the president, but is differentiated from Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running with gusto to Clinton’s left.
Biden, who has called himself a “gut politician,” believes a key lesson in 1988 and again in 2008 was deceptively simple. In crowded primary fields, he faltered without a core message that complemented voters’ worries and mirrored their aspirations for the White House.
In 1983, when Biden was a young member of his party, he lamented that Democrats were engaged in special interest politics, opening the door to GOP attacks. “We were a big and diverse political party, full of union members, civil rights activists, women’s rights proponents, children and grandchildren of immigrants who had worked their way into the middle class,” he recalled in his 2007 memoir. Then, as now, Biden wanted Democrats to embrace political engagement as a force for good. And he wanted to bring them together.
It’s unclear that a third presidential run would help Biden unite Democrats, or heighten prospects for his party’s continued control of the White House, or help Democrats gain House and Senate seats next year.
Is Biden basing a decision on the competitors already in the race? Some political analysts believe Clinton’s email troubles and her declining poll numbers are encouraging the vice president to enter the race. Others dispute this, saying Clinton’s campaign has no real bearing on the vice president’s decision.
Biden said he learned during his 1987 campaign that he “started looking at the race through the wrong prism. I looked around, judged myself against the other potential candidates for the nomination, and … decided I could beat them.”
The questions he should have been asking himself at the outset were “Could I be the sort of husband and father I wanted to be while running for president?” he recalled. And he said he wanted to campaign, but also serve the Delaware voters who sent him to the Senate.
Can Biden build a competitive presidential campaign organization, including a war chest to rival Clinton’s? Even some of the vice president’s former aides and political admirers believe that with every passing day, the realities of standing up a well funded campaign organization dim for Biden. A Draft Biden support group, backed by some of Beau Biden’s friends, insists that significant contributions would pour in, should the vice president announce his bid.
Without a declared campaign, 13 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa listed Biden as their first choice for president (up from 8 percent in May), according to a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll conducted Aug. 23-26. The same survey found that support for frontrunner Clinton had ebbed over the summer, while Sanders is narrowing Clinton’s Iowa lead.
Is there a potential for reputational rupture if Biden enters the race, and would such a risk persuade Biden to sit it out? The questions the vice president says he’s been asking himself are not exclusively about whether he can win. He said he worries about his family, about his day job, about the needs of everyday voters, and about what he would regret if he does not compete.
His internal deliberations, he said Saturday, are not easy.
What would Beau do?