Could a Biden Run Help Clinton?
Whether Vice President Joe Biden will challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination is still very much an open question, but he seems to be inching toward a run. The conventional wisdom is it would be a terrible development for Clinton.
I’m not entirely convinced. A lot depends on the specifics of how a Clinton/Biden race would play out – how nasty it would become and so forth. There are certainly ways in which such a race could be disastrous for her. But I think we have to weigh this possibility against some very real ways in which a Biden-Clinton race could help her.
I see three ways a Biden run could be bad news for Clinton. First, unlike the current crop of challengers, Biden would have a realistic chance of winning. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a relatively unknown challenger from the left wing of the party, has overtaken Clinton in New Hampshire and appears to be closing in in Iowa. Yet he probably faces a ceiling of support, as he has struggled to broaden his reach beyond white liberals. These voters are numerous in Iowa and New Hampshire but would become increasingly rare in subsequent races.
Biden would suffer from the same problem to some degree, but he is more moderate than Sanders, has more innate working-class appeal, and brings with him all of the trappings of the office of vice president. If Sanders can get into the orbit of a competitive race with Clinton, Biden can probably get within striking distance.
Looming over all of this is the potential for an endorsement from President Obama. Press secretary Josh Earnest explicitly declined to rule out this possibility a few weeks ago. While it would be unusual for a sitting president to intervene in a primary contest, if there ever were a president likely to break with precedent, it is Obama. This is something that could potentially weaken Clinton enough among nonwhite voters that the outlines of a winning coalition for Biden begin to take shape.
Second, there is a chance a Biden/Clinton race could “go nuclear.” The divisions between Clinton and Biden on policy aren’t that great, which leaves the two to fight about issues of style, personality and scandal. Such a race could get ugly, but I don’t know that it is inevitable. The differences between Clinton and Obama on substance weren’t that great, either, and both managed to emerge from the 2008 Democratic primary looking better than when they started.
Third, and perhaps most important, a Biden run would almost certainly not happen unless there were real, deep concerns among Democratic insiders that Clinton is unelectable. It could, for example, signal that there are more shoes to drop in the e-mail scandal. In this sense, a Biden run would clearly be bad news for Clinton.
My problem with these arguments is that they tend to describe symptoms, rather than diseases. That is to say, whether there are other shoes to drop on Clinton in the e-mail scandal is the real issue, not a Biden run. So a Biden run might be bad for her in that it confirms some of her supporters’ worst fears, but it wouldn’t be bad per se.
Against this, why might this be good for Clinton? I can think of three reasons.
First, a Biden run would give the media a more favorable storyline to cover. Right now, a reporter covering the Democratic primary race has three basic narratives to pursue: The e-mail/server scandal, Clinton’s policy pronouncements, and the Sanders surge. Policy tends to be under-covered in elections analysis, especially when it is fairly predictable and we’re far out from an election. (How many people really care about Clinton’s stance on early childhood education today?) Moreover, the fact that her challengers are reasonably obscure (and unlikely to prevail ultimately) means that they don’t generate their own coverage at the same rate.
So, for a reporter assigned to generate newsworthy stories about the Democratic campaign that people want to read, the pickings are slim. Hence, the e-mail/server scandal and the fact that a socialist senator is gaining on her in the polls dominate Clinton coverage. Unfortunately for Clinton, both of these narratives have a decidedly negative cast.
On the other hand, a race against a sitting vice president is inherently interesting. Biden will generate his own stories, and experience suggests not all of these will be positive. More importantly, Clinton falling behind in, say, New Hampshire to the vice president isn’t cringe-inducing and doesn’t make her look weak. She’s supposed to lose some races to someone of Biden’s stature. To the extent narratives matter -- and in primary campaigns I think they do -- “Clinton faces tough challenge from Vice President Biden” is a much better storyline than “Wow, is Bernie Sanders really going to win New Hampshire?”
Second, Clinton will likely benefit from serious competition. Anyone who has followed or played a competitive sport is familiar with the tendency of teams or players to play down to the level of their competition. Weak competition throws you off your game because the rhythm of the game is different, the strategies a weak opponent employs are different from those of a strong opponent, and weak opponents just do things a strong opponent would never do, out of necessity. A weaker opponent’s sloppiness makes you sloppy.
I think this has been affecting Clinton to a certain degree. Her press conferences and media events have been soft, as was her campaign rollout. She’s had an eight-year hiatus from elective politics, and she’s eight years older. At a certain point, that matters (compare John McCain in 2000 to John McCain in 2008). She needs someone to force her to step up her game.
We’ve seen this happen before with Clinton in particular. People forget that while there were serious weaknesses in her 2008 campaign, the proximate cause of her decline was a terrible debate performance. But by the end of her matchup with Barack Obama, she was by most accounts a vastly improved candidate. She would be much better served by having the dust knocked off of her in the Democratic primary than in the general election.
Finally – and this ties in with the first point – winners win. Politics is to a certain degree a perception game, and the perceptions of Hillary Clinton beating Joe Biden by five points in Iowa will be considerably different than the perception of Hillary Clinton beating Bernie Sanders by 10. Beating Biden – and most observers still believe Clinton would ultimately succeed against the vice president – would be a real accomplishment, regardless of the margin. The stories would be about Clinton’s winning campaign, period. Beating Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is what she’s supposed to do; beating him by a narrow margin will result in a storyline that focuses on her continued difficulties as a candidate.
In the end, for the general election, I don’t think any of this matters more than things like the state of the economy and the president’s job approval. I do think, however, that they matter at the margin. All other things being equal, a Hillary Clinton who had to defeat Vice President Joe Biden is going to be better prepared for the general election than a candidate who struggled against Bernie Sanders. If this election is as close as many of the indicators suggest it will be, that could be important.