The Case Against Biden '16
“Everybody likes Joe Biden,” new “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert said to the vice president, followed later by “I think we’d all be very happy if you did run.” With the crowd chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe!” you could not blame Biden if he felt like Colbert was speaking on behalf of America, or at least Blue America.
But if Biden wants to keep that feeling of universal affection, the last thing he should do is launch a presidential campaign.
Overnight, he will transform from everyone’s favorite political uncle into the personification of the glass ceiling. Furious Hillary Clinton supporters will hold up Biden as the latest example of a man refusing to let a qualified woman reach the top.
Why would Biden suffer that sexist distinction when rival candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has not? Because Sanders has clear-cut substantive differences with Clinton: from socializing health insurance to capping the size of banks to the Patriot Act to the Iraq War vote.
Simply put, Sanders has a reason to oppose Clinton, just as the Iraq vote provided the basis for Barack Obama to leapfrog over his elder. You can’t plausibly argue the Sanders candidacy is an exercise in mansplaining.
Biden, on the other hand, is cut from the same Establishment Democrat cloth as Clinton. They have taken similar votes that Democratic base voters view as cynical, including in favor of the Iraq War resolution, the Patriot Act and the 2001 bankruptcy bill. They both eschew left-wing pipe dreams like single-payer health insurance. Perhaps some daylight would creep between them over the course of a presidential campaign, but it would not amount to a deep philosophical breach. A Clinton presidency would be similar to a Biden presidency.
In turn, there’s no reason for Biden to oppose Clinton, at least, not an ideological one. The only reason to run is personal: Biden wants the job and Clinton is in the way. That’s not a compelling basis for a candidacy. And when you bring the glass-ceiling factor into the equation, it’s a potentially toxic one.
Maybe Biden believes he is more electable than Clinton, that his reputation for authenticity is more potent than hers for calculation. But what is praised as authentic when you are not a candidate is pilloried when you are one. Comments like calling Obama a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” and declaring that "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent" sunk his 2008 campaign before it got off the ground. A gaffe-free Biden 2016 bid is literally, and I mean literally, impossible to imagine.
Maybe Biden recognizes that his candidacy would spark a bitter contest, but the Obama-Clinton race was bitter too, and those wounds have healed. So what’s the risk?
It’s true that the Democratic Party can survive a rough-and-tumble primary. We know that from 2008. The question is: Would Biden’s reputation survive?
As it stands, Biden can take pride in one of the greatest legacies in American politics. During his 36-year Senate career, he shaped the Supreme Court, leading the 1987 fight to defeat the nomination Robert Bork, which eventually forced President Reagan to settle for the more moderate Anthony Kennedy. (Nearly 30 years later, Kennedy would rule that gays have a constitutional right to marry. Thanks, Joe!) In 1994, Biden drafted and shepherded the Violence Against Women Act to passage, a landmark law credited with contributing to a nearly two-thirds reduction in the number of domestic violence cases.
As vice president, Biden served as “sheriff” of the stimulus, successfully keeping the massive Keynesian influx of cash from succumbing to waste or fraud. He personally struck the bipartisan 2010 deal that temporarily extended the Bush tax cuts in exchange for crucial additional economic stimulus. (Without either stimulus effort, Obama would almost surely have been doomed to a single term.) Then after re-election was secured and the economy was on firmer footing, Biden sealed the bipartisan “fiscal cliff” deal that repealed the heart of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. He is one of the most influential vice presidents in history, without any of the waterboarding.
A brutal battle against a candidate poised to make history risks marring that legacy, particularly his achievements for equal rights. And it remains a battle he is more likely to lose than not.
Instead of risking his reputation by running against Clinton, he would guarantee a burnishing of it if he endorsed her.
The one value of Biden’s summer-long presidential tease is that now his endorsement is really worth something. Before, it would have been considered perfunctory. Now, it would give Clinton a jolt of fresh energy and party unity after weeks of campaign misery. Biden would be the hero. The Clintons would be indebted to him. If he wanted to become secretary of state and the possibility of another legacy achievement, it would be his.
Or if he just wanted to take the Amtrak home, he could, knowing history would be very kind to him.